In criminal psychology when there is a spate of murders there is the following intellectual response: ‘once is an isolated incident, twice is a coincidence, and three times is a pattern’. This is precisely how I have come to view The New European. I reviewed the first issue with eyes wide open as a self-described Leave-voting cosmopolitan, and at the time I said: “the editorial team needs to be wary of a patronising tone because that will only harden anti-EU arguments of internationalists like myself who oppose the EU but still take an interest in European affairs”. Unfortunately these last two issue have shown that the direction of travel for this paper will not be something that I agree with. The paper had the chance to be a mouthpiece about all that’s going on in Europe, but has instead decided to be an echo-chamber of pro-EU liberalism. This is a shame.
The framing of a debate is incredibly important and the editorial staff at The New European have framed the EU debate as about intelligence. This is a profoundly wrong approach. In the third edition of the paper, eminent philosopher A.C. Grayling wrote a fascinating piece about referenda in parliamentary democracies. Considering the paper was born out of the Brexit result, Grayling’s piece used the EU referendum as an example in his normative discussion. I welcome philosophers and intellectuals openly participating in mainstream discourse, especially when they make arguments that I disagree with. However, the paper’s editorial framed Grayling’s piece with the following statement: “the definitive view of democracy by the UK’s leading philosopher A.C. Grayling”. This really rubbed me the wrong way, and led to a conclusion drenched in irony.
As I said above I welcome people with different views because this causes me to re-evaluate my positions. Anyone who challenges me, critiques my views, or calls me to think is my intellectual friend. However by the paper framing Grayling’s piece as “the definitive view” is clearly ludicrous. I do not know Professor Grayling but all academics that I have met encourage disagreement, particularly when people are putting forward a thesis. When presenting an argument academics are quick to stress that it is their view but not an objective fact, especially in social science and the humanities. To be clear, Grayling doesn’t claim his article is objective truth, his case is a passionate and rationale, but not arrogant. However by introducing the article as “the definitive view”, the paper is implying that disagreeing with this view is automatically false. This is the grand irony: the paper rightly lampoons anti-intellectualism but in its desire to do so has stumbled into logical fallacies.
I am a passionate opponent of anti-intellectualism because the world is complicated and attempts to distil the essence of a political problem and solve it with a simple solution often does not work. Nuance is a good thing and having knowledge of a situation is not an impediment to crafting effective policy. However by basically arguing that Grayling is objectively correct the paper ignores confirmation bias and propagates an argument from authority. Grayling’s view, I put it to you, has been labelled as ‘definitive’ because it agrees with their editorial line.
Further, by asserting that Grayling is “the UK’s leading philosopher” the editorial team is implying that rejecting this view amounts to anti-intellectualism. Rejecting the view of an academic does not equate to anti-intellectualism, as any hypothetical would expose. For instance if Max Weber and Karl Marx walked into a pub and started talking about politics (which I’ll admit sounds like the start of a joke), it would be a very interesting conversation. However if Weber turned to Marx and said “oh you disagree with me, therefore you’re an anti-intellectual”, we would all say that that is clearly not the case. The same is true here. I believe that the paper has fallen to the argument from authority fallacy. Because Grayling is a very intelligent man, which I think is undeniable, they have suspended all critical thinking and taken his word as gospel.
Disagreeing with a clever person is not necessarily anti-intellectualism. For example Grayling talks about how the UK is a representative democracy designed to prevent the ‘tyranny of the majority’. Whist this point it important, one could make the argument that the current electoral system of the UK prevents the citizenry from giving consent to any given government. Also, the majoritarian nature of the House of Commons essentially creates a ‘tyranny of the majority’, only the people who are voting are representatives rather than the entirety of the citizenry.
To speak even more normatively, Grayling brings up the point about conflicting mandates. He specifically makes the point about how MPs have been elected by the population and therefore these representatives have the legitimacy of their mandates to act in the best interests of the country. The problem that Grayling is trying to solve is how we can reconcile the mandate of MPs to act according to how they believe the country should be run (pro-EU) and the mandate of the voters (anti-EU). He concludes that because the referendum was non-binding, it would not be undemocratic for MPs to overrule the Brexit decision.
In terms of raw numbers the number of votes and the turnout of the EU referendum was higher than the 2015 general election and therefore, if a mandate was measured in terms of aggregation of votes, the referendum result would have a larger mandate. In both situations the result is winner-take-all. In the 2015 general election, and all general elections, many of the votes cast are ignored because of the first-past-the-post electoral system used. As a result in almost all seats the majority of people didn’t vote for the representative who ends up winning, and therefore the MPs that make up the House of Commons have less legitimacy than is first thought. Because MPs are not elected by the majority of their constituents in many cases, I find it hard to argue that these representatives should override the direct decision made by the people.
The other thing that Grayling stresses is that Britain is a representative democracy, and as a result representatives should make the final decision. I would argue that this is undemocratic as we have to ask the question: what is a representative’s purpose? A representative exists, in part, to reflect the will of their constituents, and if the collective constituents of all MPs have said that Britain should leave the EU, why should MPs get to overrule them? That is not to say that MPs didn’t have a say on the matter, they voted in the referendum just like everyone else.
This has been a bit of a tangent but it illustrates my wider point. I have just vehemently disagreed with the article, but does the criticism of Grayling’s argument above amount to anti-intellectualism? No, of course not. However the framing of the article would imply that it is, and this form of thinking is just as lazy as those who think that people with expertise should be ignored by default. There is a worrying rising tide of anti-intellectualism but it is not difficult to explain why. For years people have been told to blindly accept the views of experts as objective truths rather than opinions, and because of the socio-economic changes caused by globalisation, people feel that the world has changed for the worse. The response has been a reaction against people they believe are the experts who caused the change. This is what Michael Gove meant when he said “people in this country have had enough of experts”. He was adding fuel to a fire that already existed.
I commend The New European for trying to add nuance to discussions like the EU debate, however the framing of this piece was infuriating. What I took away from this article’s framing was a contemptuousness for anyone who disagrees with the neoliberal consensus. To reiterate, this is not about Grayling’s piece, but about the framing of the debate and the general tone of the publication. It is this smug attitude that ordinary people looked at and told to fuck off. One can only be patronising for so long before one is punched in the dick, and the Brexit vote was an anti-establishment dick-punch. The motivations were numerous, and I wish that the campaign wasn’t a cacophony of race-baiting and fearmongering, but the overarching message was opposition to the established order. Portraying pro-EU arguments as intrinsically correct is not how you win people over to your side.
I am glad voted to leave the EU, and if you disagree that’s fine, but pro-EU campaigners cannot simply write off 17 million people as being stupid. No group is perfect and I am sure that there are people on both sides that are not especially clever, but contempt is not the way forward. Grayling’s piece was interesting, and I am glad the paper decided to seek his opinion, but the editorial staff have got to stop propagating logical fallacies, which is hugely ironic given that this section of the paper is supposedly dedicated to intellectual discussions. Disagreement equalling anti-intellectualism is proof of a stunning lack of awareness about how academia operates. I tried to read this publication even though I disagree with its raison d’être because I was genuinely curious about what it was going to say, but I’m giving up now.
Don’t get me wrong there were some good pieces of analysis and an article giving a hopeful message for pro-EU people going forward, but the contempt for people who voted leave is just too much. All of these discussions about the impacts of Brexit are important but I refuse to continue buying a paper that claims to be a saviour of rational discourse whilst implying that those who disagree are wrong by default.