Tag Archives: Brexit

Order, disorder, reorder – part 2 of 3

It’s almost a simplistic metaphor, but … picture three boxes: order, disorder, reorder. … [I]f you read the great myths of the world and the great religions, that’s the normal path of transformation.

–Richard Rohr

493px-RichardRohrOFMThis blog post is part two of a three-part series inspired by the above quote by Richard Rohr (shown in the photograph on the right). If you’ve not read part one I recommend doing so now so that you appreciate the context of Rohr’s words and how they might apply to the great myths of the world. Here, in this post, I consider what Rohr’s three-box model might have to say about political polarisation in society, and what its limitations might be. In the third and final post I will frame my own ‘spiritual’ development in terms of Rohr’s model and make some concluding remarks.

A political perspective

What conservative people want to do is just keep rebuilding the first box, “order, order, order,” at all costs, even if it doesn’t fit the facts or fit reality. … So many progressive, academic, liberal, educated folks, they just keep sloshing around in the second box and almost resist any sense of order.

So, the context in which Richard Rohr is speaking here is that of the political situation in the USA: dominated by two parties, Republican and Democratic, conservative and liberal, traditional and progressive. We may have a different national political dynamic here in the UK, perhaps slightly less polarised, but it is broadly similar and people tend to position themselves one way or the other on the conventional political spectrum.

From Rohr’s choice of words here, he sees the difficulty with the individual maturing politically if that individual strongly identifies with one political orientation or the other. If you identify with the conservative ideology then you feel as if you’re being constructive in rebuilding the “order” box over and over, but in adhering so rigidly to the absolute belief that order must be maintained at all costs you’re blocking the path towards a more provisional, nuanced situation where you can better address conditions.

Conservative over-confidence?
I’ll tentatively suggest that the recent ‘Brexit’ result of the UK referendum (on continuing membership of the European Union) represents an example of this. I have to admit a specific difficulty here, though, as part of the large minority that voted to remain in the EU. The echo chamber and filter bubble of social media mean that I’m rather out of touch with views that might help me to understand why a majority voted to leave the EU in the referendum.

brexit-2185266_1280From the limited discussions I’ve had with ‘Brexiteers’ I get the impression that there’s a desire to put the country into a new order box that very closely resembles the one that existed before the UK entered the EU in the early 1970s (before my time!). Not that we were experiencing a period of disorder during the years of EU membership – and there was a long stretch of ordering along neoliberal lines during the Thatcher years – but there is a belief that once we’ve got through the process of leaving the EU the country will be able to construct a better order without ‘interference’ from Europe.

Of course I’d argue that Brexit does not represent an improvement, that it is not a synthesis after the years of pre-1973 order and the perceived disorder of the EU years; I personally view it as a step backwards to an outdated form of political order (that probably wasn’t so great anyway back then) and seems unlikely to adequately deal with conditions now. But then my political inclinations dispose me towards that kind of view. I imagine the stereotypical conservative Brexiteer to be clinging to a fragile absolute view (“it is right that the UK determines its own path” or “our greatest problems are caused by immigrants”), and that view cannot be properly examined because the lack of incrementality means that it wouldn’t survive the examination process… fear of disorder (where simplistic, absolute beliefs are recognised as being inadequate, or even harmful) holds them from making political progress.

Progressive pitfalls?
AntifragileOn the other hand, if you strongly identify as a progressive, as a liberal, then there’s the danger of only being able to see tradition and the existing order as an absolutised evil, and rejecting it wholesale, whether or not it actually addresses conditions. I’ve found the Taleb’s perspective to be of use here in helping me to challenge my own liberal, progressive views – for example, in his book Antifragile he points out that the longevity of a product, tool, book, idea or ideology is positively correlated with its age, since the products, tools, books, ideas and ideologies that don’t address the conditions of the real world don’t survive! Time, using his language, is the best creator of antifragility, as in the course of time unexpected events eventually occur and demolish the things that were fragile to that occurrence. This is also known as the ‘Lindy effect‘.

It is tempting for me to think that the Middle Way would involve a liberal, progressive politics – but since it seems to me like such an obvious, certain fact the Middle Way itself suggests that it is a belief worth critically examining in significant detail. The work of Jonathan Haidt on what he calls ‘moral foundations theory’ looks for common ground between the conventional camps of the political divide, which might be useful in finding a middle way that better addresses the current political conditions that we find ourselves in. The idea of synthesis also suggests that a better way lies beyond the dualism of conservative and progressive, and the Middle Way is a promising tool to guide us in examining and integrating our desires, beliefs and meanings.

fresco-379932_1280There’s also the problem of progressives taking the order-disorder-reorder model and appropriating it into an absolutised form. Consider, for example, the Russian revolution. The old order of the Russian tsars collapsed in the disorder of the first 1917 revolution, and eventually the one-party state of the Soviet Union emerged from the disorder. The party constructed the history as an inevitable progression from order, through disorder, to re-order – and then stifled any political attempts to challenge the re-ordered state by stating that history had run its course and the inevitable end-state had been achieved. In political revolutions the dis-ordered period is lasts a relatively short time – a likely sign that it’s not going to lead to a more synthetic, re-ordered situation but instead to more of the same order in a different guise. (Aside: see this excellent article by Nicky Case for more on the perils of and alternatives to political revolution.)

It seems likely, on an individual level, that adherence to a dogmatic left/right ideology is an impediment to our own maturation politically, as well as spiritually (whatever that means – more on this in the final part of this series). There’s a clear link here with the very Middle Way-ish idea of looking for a synthetic approach to dealing with apparent dilemmas: the thesis and the antithesis initially clash, but through some difficult process the two seemingly opposed ideas are somehow brought together into a more complex new whole. The  practice of critical thinking, and the processes by which we can encourage integration are prominent in the Middle Way: see this post by Robert about integration, for example.


Featured image of ballot boxes created using an image from pixabay.com (License: CC0 Public Domain)
Photograph of Richard Rohr from wikimedia commons (License: CC0 Public Domain)
EU/UK flag graphic and photograph of revolutionary fresco courtesy of pixabay.com (License: CC0 Public Domain)

Finding balance in the Brexit storm

To say that the last couple of days have been eventful in British political life would be an understatement. A narrow vote to leave the EU in the referendum on 23rd June confounded widespread assumptions of the permanence of the status quo. As had been widely predicted, an economic storm blew up immediately. But what is even more notable is what has happened since: not only Cameron’s resignation, but widespread reports of ‘Bregret’ – those who voted leave saying they would change their minds next time, because they hadn’t realised it would actually make a difference. At the time of writing, a petition on the government petition site has gathered over 2 million signatures calling for a second referendum.Ship in strait

What does all this have to do with the Middle Way? Pretty much everything. Remember, the practice of the Middle Way starts right now in whatever situation we are in, finding a point of balance and avoiding either sort of absolutisation, positive or negative. I suspect that most readers of this blog will greatly regret the current situation, and may feel that it’s really unjust, or perhaps a few will feel that it is just: but either of these responses are idealisations of a complex situation. The degree of justice or injustice lies in people, not in the whole situation, so probably the first move in finding a point of balance is to recognise and avoid implicit cosmic justice assumptions or their denial. Related to these may be other absolutisations: absolute blame heaped on one person or group or another, or absolute value applied to the consequence of either leaving or remaining in the EU. Such abolutisations obscure our understanding of the conditions involved.

It is avoiding these absolutisations that can enable us to judge the situation in a more balanced way, but it does not free us from political concerns. Nor does it release us from recognising the degree of justice and injustice, appropriate praise and blame, or right and wrong that need to be applied in understanding the situation. Examination of the process of events can reveal a whole set of biases and fallacies that have both created receptivity for the misleading narrative for ‘Leave’ and also made the ‘Remain’ campaign ineffective.

Personally I think fairly strong moral conclusions can still be reasonably drawn whilst avoiding absolutisation. I think that the leaders of the ‘Leave’ campaign have behaved in a disgracefully dishonest fashion, and that the English and Welsh working classes have been duped. These are generalisations, which will of course have exceptions, and we can also recognise an interdependency between the naivete of the voters and the lack of integrity of the politicians and of the tabloid media. Neither is wholly to blame, but at the same time considerable blame can be fairly apportioned. The evidence is clear if, for example, we look at the simplistic figure of £350 million pounds a week allegedly given to the EU, the treatment of the issue of possible Turkish accession to the EU, or the treatment of the issue of the economic and social impact of EU migrants in the UK. On the whole, the politicians offered simplistic slogans that obscured the issues, these slogans were passed on without any critical context by the tabloids, and when questioned about them the politicians concerned resorted to diversionary tactics such as ad hominem attacks. The falsely neutral BBC rarely got any further than ‘balancing’ one ad hominem attack against another, letting through unscrutinised no end of misleading mono-causal explanations for complex phenomena or statistics taken out of context.  Only a few more specialised and less popular programmes examined the issues more deeply.

Conclusions like these can be drawn, but we also need to start by coming to terms with the new conditions. Yes, it seems that we have a bitterly divided UK with an alienated, ignorant and even blindly furious working class largely at the mercy of whatever media and political interests are best able to manipulate them. Failing to understand the conditions, this group have collectively engaged in a massively self-destructive act. But we won’t be able to address these conditions if we think that somehow God has made a mistake and it really shouldn’t have been allowed, or that some other intrinsic justice has been betrayed. Nothing finally ‘wrong’ has happened: rather people have made mistakes, and these can be improved upon.

Trying to reach that position of balanced judgement, I still think we can find ways forward and find grounds for optimism. The underlying problem is that people have absolutised in their judgements, because they have not had the training in critical thinking to be aware when they were being fed a narrow account of conditions, nor the training in other integrative practices to move beyond one particular dominant idea (say that of ‘getting our country back’) that has dominated their judgement. This can be changed, but only in the long term. People can be trained in integrative practice and in critical thinking by more effective education, not just at school but throughout life. People can also be greatly encouraged to think more critically about political claims by a more effective and genuinely critical media. As individuals, we can also contribute to them spreading one-to-one even if we do not work in either education or the media.

I would like to contribute to campaigning in both those crucial areas – education and the media – but if forced to choose between them, I am most struck by the responsibility of the media for the situation. That responsibility emerges from a complex web of conditions: the operation of market forces on media organisations, the constant interplay between journalistic creativity and audience expectations, and so on. Yet my impression is that most journalists, even those working for the most reputable newspapers or broadcast organisations, do not see critical thinking as part of their brief, and are simply not trained in it. If journalists really want to give the public the tools to draw their own conclusions in an informed way, they need to become much more aware of the terminology and techniques of critical thinking and of practically applied cognitive psychology. At the moment, for the most part, they are simply not holding politicians to account, because the politicians remain effectively unchallenged in the ways that matter most. Being rude, interrupting the politician and telling them they have not answered the question are simply not enough if endless ad hominems, straw men, false dilemmas, simplistic mono-causal explanations, raw statistical figures without contextual proportions, or dismissals without a practical alternative go straight past them. If the public are not interested enough or aware enough of these things, it is both the job and the talent of journalists to make them interesting, and in the process start to contribute to a more objective and more adequate politics in the future.