This was originally going to be a piece on the various promises, predictions and claims made during the Referendum campaign, analysing who was right, who was a liar and who was simply clueless. However, as I did the research for this, I noticed two things. The first was that there are a lot of such articles already out there and that would be going over pretty old ground. The second thing, though, was much more interesting.
In the debates and exchanges around this, distinct patterns emerged where two people could both be convinced that they were right and that the other was misleading or even lying. I think the truth of the matter is more subtle than that and that “lying” is actually the least likely situation.
I’ve therefore picked out the types of situations that I observed – all of which have led to blazing rows online, in parliament, in the media and in people’s homes. So these will probably be familiar…
Right but not Relevant
It is possible to be 100% correct in all your facts; but have a conclusion that is wrong because there are other, more important things to consider.
I personally experienced this in debating with some Brexiteers the possibility of an EEA style option for Brexit. I’ve had quoted at me numerous treaty articles and clauses that are supposed to prove how we have a right to just walk into the EEA. Personally, I think that’s a very optimistic reading of the treaties; but it doesn’t actually matter if they do say that. Whatever is written down is an expression of political will and if the political will is to reject us, we will be rejected.
No member state is going to give up its right to have a say on this issue and that is the reality we have to deal with. This is then countered with the idea that they all want to do a deal with us and this then reveals the truth behind this argument. It’s nothing to do with what has been quoted – the treaty articles or international law – it’s simply a prediction, a belief that something will happen. I personally have a different prediction but at this stage neither of us know if we are right. Only time will tell who is.
So the original debate was like warning someone that they need to escape from a wild tiger that’s approaching and they answer, “Well, I can walk.” What they’ve said is totally true; but it’s not really a relevant answer. My prediction is still that they are going to get eaten and the fact that they can walk is irrelevant as the tiger is running towards them.
I first remember this from my youth; but it shows up every day. You put a situation to two different people and get two different reactions and two different ways of dealing with it. To be honest, that’s probably what we’d all expect as we’re all different; we’re all individuals. Unfortunately, though, this common sense seems to quickly disappear.
At the moment, most terrorist acts are committed by Muslims. I have been repeatedly told that all Muslims are therefore terrorists. Not only is that offensive crap, it is logically inconsistent. If such logic were true, I could say with equal confidence that since most rapists are men, all men are rapists! As a man, I can say that I am not a rapist and so the argument is within seconds proved to be nonsense (I was blocked by someone for pointing that out).
This is the logic of prejudice. Now prejudice has evolved for very sensible reasons. Remembering that the big orange cat almost took your arm off last month will make you extremely wary when you next encounter a tiger – thus allowing you to survive and breed. But people aren’t animals; and the colour of someone’s skin, or their religion, or their gender, or their nationality or how they vote does not tell you everything about them and you cannot make sweeping judgements.
In the referendum campaign and its aftermath, both sides fell prey to this. To say all Germans want to take over Europe or that any nation speaks with one voice is as wrong saying all Leave voters are racist. Some are and some Germans may do; but the vast majority don’t.
Lumping people together and telling them what they think and feel because of their membership of any group is offensive and simply gets their backs up. If progress is ever to be made in any debate, such stupid comments must be avoided.
My experience is everyone’s experience
This is an extension of the previous idea; but it’s important as it’s what often drives it. We naturally treat out own lives and experience as normal – after all , it’s what we measure everything to. But this can easily lead to a very incomplete picture as we are just individuals and cannot hope to personally experience everything that goes on.
Take Immigration. Remain said that immigration has been positive for the country, enhancing our culture and economy with newcomers paying far more in than they take out. At a national economic level, that is true. In many places, such as London, that is also the experience of many individuals. That’s great; but the danger is that these people can then expect everyone else to have the same view as them.
However, there are places where there has been a very focused and insular immigration that has disrupted communities. And while the overall economic experience is positive, in localised areas – if nothing extra is given by local or central governments – local services can be put under strain and local people can find it tougher to get jobs. If that was your experience, you might struggle to understand how anyone could see immigration as anything other than destructive.
Both can be right in their own experience; but that’s simply not the complete picture. Being aware that others have different experiences and that the world is simply more diverse than we can ever possible experience is key if we are to avoid such discussions degenerating into accusations. Claiming that the other is simply wrong just leads to offense, anger and conflict. We should avoid that.
Why resort to a lie when a half-truth will do?
Fans of Yes Minister will recognise Sir Humphrey’s words there from over 30 years ago; and the idea is still alive and well. Anyone who is interested in politics should watch that whole series and then listen to what politicians say and – more often than not – what they don’t say as well.
Economic investment is the biggest misleading half-truth that is doing the rounds as a result of the EU referendum. The Remain claim (the real one rather than the one of “Armageddon” that was attributed to them by Leave) was that Brexit would harm economic growth and investment. The response to this by Leave supporters is to tweet, quote and trumpet any investment into the UK. This is a half-truth of which Sir Humphrey would have been proud.
If 100 investments are expected and I say that Brexit will lead to a 10% reduction (which is very significant in economic terms) then quoting at me one of the 90 that are still going to come is meaningless. They always were and their continued investment is not proof of “defying Brexit” or “Booming Britian” and it certainly cannot be evidence that there is no impact! Quoting one of the 10 who have changed their mind does mean something though as it is showing a changed action as a consequence of Brexit.
The half-truth trick is to simply take things which are totally true and then suggest, or allow people to infer for themselves, wider things from the half-truth which are not true. It’s often not even done maliciously. People could be watching the 90 investments and be thinking, where are the problems? Why are we not seeing a reduction? The full picture is what matters, which is why a half-picture can often give the wrong conclusion.
But this idea raises its head again and again in all parties and across all the political spectrum. It is the abandonment of the full picture to focus on one part in order to claim – or infer – a wider conclusion. An example from this week would be a response I saw to Traingate.
The person who tweeted these extracts from Virgin Trains CCTV then said that the picture “...actually confirms the Corbyn team’s claims that they were occupied by children or reserved with luggage”. This is literally not looking at the whole picture. Yes, that one seat is clearly taken by a child – but what about all the rest? One child doesn’t make a carriage full. Nor is it likely that this was a children’s party or that every seat had luggage on. It’s possible; but it’s also possible I could flip a coin a hundred times and get heads every time. It’s just very unlikely though. And the same with the coin.
My previous piece on The Libel Of Truth addressed the need to restore confidence that what is published is true as a basis of any political debate; and I would stand by that. However, what I hope this has demonstrated is that there is more to any debate than simply being right.
You can be right but it isn’t relevant. You can be right but so can your opponent; and you can be right but be missing half the picture and so come to a wrong conclusion. If we want to bridge gaps between groups and move forward in debate and in compromise, then I would say its essential to watch out for these traps and be wary of falling into them.
I don’t believe most people lie or set out to deceive. I believe most people are good and honest; but I also believe we need to do more to be aware of the other perspectives and experiences out there and then be mindful and respectful of them.
Only then can we move forward.
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