Thursday, June 23, 2016


I am not a citizen of Great Britain, but I do have an opinion regarding Brexit - Britain's referendum on whether to remain in or leave the European Union.

First, I want to object to the idea that, "Simply because you are not a citizen, you are not entitled to an opinion on such a matter."

The fact is, I am entitled to an opinion on the moral concerns that are relevant in this decision. This is true in the same way that I have a reason to be concerned about a country that is rounding up and killing all of the Jews, or refusing to give voting rights to its black citizens, or practicing slavery, or systematically discriminating against its women. Moral concerns - insofar as they are moral concerns - do not end at national borders.

Furthermore, people are entitled to an opinion on matters that effect them. There is reason to believe that Brexit will have an effect far outside of England. It will certainly effect the European Union. In particular, it also has a lot to say about how nations are going to interact with each other. This, in turn, will have implications for international relationships elsewhere in the world. This, in turn, will have implications for human interaction and cooperation on a global scale - a scale at which important decisions have to be made.

On the moral side of the equation, one of the primary reasons being given for Brexit is, in effect, an appeal to tribal psychology. This is the psychological comfort that people find in dividing the world into "us" versus "them" and attributing to one's own group all of the good qualities, while seeing "them" as the victimizing and dangerous "other".

It is a part of human psychology, but it is not one of the good parts. It is the seat of a great deal of injustice, hatred, fear, and violence. It is something that each of us needs to fight against at all times if we are to create a peaceful and just society.

Brexit is both built on and feeds tribal bigotry. It grows from this disposition to hate "the other" and then feeds back on itself to further promote and nourish a fear and hatred of "the other". It is not a legitimate reason for England to leave the European Union. Instead, it is a reason for England to put some effort into tamping down these tribal sentiments and the ill effects that come from them.

Many of the other reasons for Brexit are, in effect, rationalizations by people who, being human, have bigoted sentiments that they do not want to admit to in public, and may even want to hide from themselves.

Much of the money Britain pays as dues for membership in the European Union is returned to England directly, and others come back to England in terms of economic and political benefits.

The European Union regulations that people in Britain complain about will still be in effect once Britain leaves the EU, and will still apply to British exports to the EU. British manufactures will still have to meet European Union standards for the same reason that car manufacturers who ship cars to the United States must meet American standards regarding safety, gas mileage, and pollution.

The weakness of these arguments suggest that there is some other motivation that is driving people into seeing them as having merit. It is not unreasonable to hold, at least in many cases, people are motivated to seeing these as strong arguments because they provide a useful cover to emotions and reasons they do not wish to admit they have.

On the side of international relations, it is no longer the case that we can pretend that we are a planet of isolated and independent tribes. From greenhouse gas emissions and the emissions that damage the ozone layer, to deforestation, to pollution that crosses national borders and enters the sea and air, to joint and universal responses to global economic problems, to preventing international corporations from playing one country off against another by forming a joint bargaining position against them, there are reasons for nations to work together.

The isolationist, "build a wall and pretend that we are somehow not connected to the rest of the earth" attitude is irrational - and dangerous.

Of course, every country that enters into an international organization is going to want to be the one and only dominant member that gets to dictate policy to all the others. This is true in the same way that anybody who enters into a civil society with others is going to want to be the dictator of that society. They will likely see themselves as a good dictator - unable to understand why others question their perfect wisdom and generosity. Yet, they will be disposed not to trust others to govern them.

This, too, is a part of human nature.

These psychological facts, like the bigoted tribalism discussed above - is another part of our psychology that works against our interests. We need to replace these attitudes with attitudes of cooperation and consideration, and with institutions built on negotiations that "will not always go our way". We need to recognize that it is, at best, immature to pick up one's ball and go home just because one did not get their way in their dealings with others. The mature country, like the mature individual, stays and tries to work things out.

Our global interdependence is growing. The number and size of issues that will require an international response will grow with it. We need to admit to this future and start to plan for it - not run from it and pretend it does not exist.


Adil Zeshan said...

Thank you for writing this, Alonzo. As a Brit, I am also voting to remain for indeed the very reasons you have outlined. The outcome of this referendum affects everyone, British or not.

Unknown said...

This idea of separation in today's world environment, especially Trump's "Build a Wall", and now Brexit, reminds so much of E. A. Poe's short story "The Masque of the Red Death". The inhabitants, afraid of a plaque that is killing much of the population, quarantine themselves in an opulent palace and have a party, indifferent to those suffering outside the walls. The irony is that the walls become a prison when the plague is found to be inside (in the form of one of the revelers).

Unknown said...

You do realise its not a vote to leave Europe? right, its to no longer be governed by unelected officials in Brussels, nothing more and nothing less. to accuse half the country of bigotry and racism is an assertion made by people who wish to strawman the leave arguments and lump its proponents into the same category as the likes of trump, there is no logic and reason behind that! its simply assuming youre correct and therefore anybody with a different opinion must either be stupid or racist or xenophobic or all, it makes ZERO sense to call somebody a bigot for wanting to leave the European union, it is not about abandoning Europe and " the filthy fucking immigrants " though those views are expressed by genuine racists who will inevitably have voted leave for their own agendas, you may not lump the rest of us into that category, many of us are optimistic about leaving for the simple following logic ( to control our own policies, laws, regulations, whatever ) it is not reasonable to then make the sweeping claim that people with those views are racist or bigoted or ignorant for that matter. This is nothing like the donald trump build a wall irrationality, it bears zero resemblance unless you havent done your research into both arguments are are only looking to confirm your own biases, right? Nobody actually knows what will happen if we eventually leave the EU, literally, all the arguments for and against are simply " possible " and that does not equate to " probable " making claims and not backing them up with evidence is, and we can agree, an opinion and nothing more. if as over half the voters voted to leave, then lets wait a few years before we start blaming folk, or praising for that matter. logically I see no reason the UK can not thrive on its own, its logical that it would do, like every other country thats doing well. we are not abandoning Europe because we decided to leave one of its " clubs " , that's equivalent to telling me I am abandoning humanity for leaving the fucking chess club :-3

Alonzo Fyfe said...

(1) I did not accuse half the country of bigotry. I accused all humans of bigotry - or, more precisely, tribalism. It's easy to demonstrate that we have these dispositions. They are a part of our human nature. However, as I said in the post, they are not a GOOD part of our human nature. Given their harmful side effects, they represent a part of us that we need to keep under control.

(2) I did not call anybody a bigot for wanting to leave the European Union. I said that some of the sentiment - much of the sentiment - for wanting to leave was tribal. It is wrong both to say that tribal prejudices provided the ONLY motivation for leaving as it is to say that it provided NO motivation for leaving. The real answer is in-between. However, if it had been absent, then "leave" would have failed the election.

(3) As I wrote in the posting, the insistance on "controlling our own policies, laws, regulations, whatever" is nonsense.

(3a) There's the fact that England is not the only country on Planet Earth. There are global problems to be solved. Clearly, it is absurd to think that England is going to come up with unilateral decisions, made only by the people of England, and impose them on the rest of the world.

(3b) Setting aside global problems needing agreements among states where no one state can dicatate terms, England does not have the right or power to dictate terms regarding its interactions with individual states. Its exports will need to conform to the requirements (regulations) that other countries pass.

Again, I covered both of these issues in the posting. I am suspecting that you did not actually read the arguments. You simply decided that you did not like the conclusion and started typing from there.

(4) I did not base any of my conclusions on making predictions on what will happen as a result of independence, so questions about these predictions are not relevant to my specific arguments. However, I do have a disposition to say, "Trust the experts, unless you know enough about the subject matter to be an expert yourself."