Professor Michael Dougan on the EU Referendum Debate

This may seem like an unusual post for a counselling service. However, this is a huge decision that will impact all our lives for many years to come, and the lives of those yet to come.

Like Michael, we have serious concerns about the nature of the public debate. That encompasses a fearfulness about the xenophobic and sinister tone of some of the ‘leave’ arguments (the infamous Nigel Farrage/queue poster being a case in point), and issues with the quality of some of the information being recited as fact.

This film is around 25 minutes long. If you are undecided, 25 minutes seems a small investment in such a major decision. Michael is a career-long researcher, academic and expert in EU law. He knows what he is talking about. He is so disturbed by some of the distortions and outright untruths that he has decided both to state his own position (remain), and to correct some of those distortions/errors.

There are two aspects to what he is saying that feel particularly important, and are cultural phenomena the writer is noticing on a wider scale.

He says that, whilst the ‘remain’ campaign has not covered itself in glory and has offered out some ‘dodgy statistics’, the ‘leave’ campaign has increasingly featured ‘dishonesty…on an industrial scale’. He makes a discomforting aside:-

‘I’ve dared to say some of these things aren’t true, some of these things aren’t actually accurate, and I’ve found myself being treated with personal insults about my credibility and my competence and so on. I was trying to think of a good analogy and I think the analogy… for someone who works in the field like I do – is probably the equivalent of an evolutionary biologist listening to a bunch of creationists tell the public that creation theory is right and evolution is completely wrong. It really is that bad for someone who actually is a professional researcher in the field. And yet it’s working.’

Yes. The writer has also experienced this. It’s the politics of oppression, and sadly it does work. You do not engage with the other person’s evidence or logic. Instead you undermine their credibility and competence. It’s a time-honoured political strategy, and highly effective in avoiding authentic debate and weighing of evidence, in favour of manipulation to support an agenda. It’s also culturally extremely popular.

The second issue is around responsibility. The writer notices with alarm what feels like an increasing cultural drift into blame-based ways of seeing, and the extent to which this appears to exist in inverse proportion to genuine accountability, and our capacity as individual human beings to assume meaningful responsibility for our own choices, actions and feelings. The fault/blame model tends towards everything being someone else’s fault, and responds punitively. It’s not hard to see where it leads, if we all adopt this perspective in how we relate to each other – and it is nowhere good: passivity/powerlessness, a paternalistic reliance on ‘bigger authorities’, ‘othering’, cognitive dissonance and ethical disconnection.

From this place, we tend to pathologize and demonize difference, and – again – disregard or manipulate actual evidence which does not suit our agenda (whilst shouting loudly about our ‘evidence base’).

This service has been up close and personal with this cultural tendency in the past few years. It is frightening, and serves none of us. We don’t respond to the blame/fault/punishment model with open minds or hearts, and it becomes an escalating, destructive spiral with energies arising from shadow, fear and a personal/collective sense of powerlessness and lack of agency. The ‘leave’ campaign has played on that.

Michael catches this when he says ‘The EU isn’t someone else, it isn’t something that happens to us’.

The writer hopes that on Thursday we will manage to step into responsibility – and then go about fixing what needs fixing. The alternatives feel increasingly scary.

Palace Gate Counselling Service, Exeter

Counselling in Exeter since 1994


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