Brexit is worse than stupid—it's thoughtless

What our politicians have engaged in is a refusal to think

December 17, 2018
British Prime Minister David Cameron. Photo: PA
British Prime Minister David Cameron. Photo: PA

“He didn’t think this through” tweeted human rights lawyer Adam Wagner last week in response to the suggestion that had he done so, David Cameron might have implemented a two-stage referendum or required a “super majority,” as might be appropriate given the enormity of the decision at issue.

In truth, it was worse than this: David Cameron didn’t think at all. He didn’t make an error of judgement in calling the Brexit vote, because that would have required actual judgement rather than mere calculation, or politically expedient reason. He was simply—and, as it turned out, catastrophically—thoughtless.

Cameron set the standard for what was to follow. The buffoons of Brexit, with their laddish bombast, silly hair, and Union Jack socks looked like exactly what they were: buffoons. Like the adults currently walking the streets wearing elf costumes made of cheap felt, they didn’t care if they looked stupid: it was Brexit!

Those in search of deep meaning behind the events of the past two years might, retrospectively, be tempted to see some cunning here. If it looks and sounds like a pantomime, if the glinty-eyed villains look like villains, if the machinations of the plot seem like a farce, if it’s all so stupid, perhaps people won’t take it seriously. They won’t take it seriously, and that way, we’ll win. Aha, not as stupid as we look!

But it is not stupidity alone that makes the situation so serious just now. Our current political debate—a debate in which not only political lives but real lives might be lostlacks depth. Brexit is not only characterised by nakedly evident stupidity; its thoughtlessness is banal. That, in the long run, might well turn out to be even more dangerous.

It was the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, who first understood how lethal banality could be. She coined the much-misunderstood phrase “the banality of evil” in response to the trial of Adolf Eichmann, which she witnessed in Jerusalem in 1961. What she did not mean was that Eichmann’s acts were banal: devising quicker and more efficient ways of murdering Europe’s Jewish population was obviously an unprecedented evil. Nor did she mean that Eichmann was some kind of unknowing marionette in a murderous administrative system (although he did a good job of shaming guilelessness). He ran the murderous administrative system, and was proud to do so.

What she meant was that he did all this thoughtlessly. Eichmann could not hear his voice echo in the world. He was like the drunken uncle at the wedding who chunters on about himself, clownishly self-important, confident he is saying something profound, when what he is actually doing is dribbling clichés down his tie.  You know it was me—he boasted of his “humanitarianism”—who reduced the number of people per cattle truck. This is obscene. It is also banal.

The thing you need to understand is the migrants…

But on WTO terms…

We are a great coastal nation…

Let me explain to you why sovereignty is…

Please shut up.

This kind of thoughtlessness is aberrant not just because of the suffering it causes, but because failing to think is also inhuman. By thinking, Arendt does not mean being super-good at reasoning things through, or having some kind of genius. She means, quite simply, the two-in-one conversation we all have in our heads with ourselves pretty much all the time.

Everyone thinks. It is the human condition. In its raw state, thinking is nothing to do with expertise or special knowledge. You do not necessarily get better at this kind of thinking because you had a great education—although it is true that some people get more time and leisure to think than others.

Above all, thinking is a moral consideration. This is for two reasons. First, because thinking is the conversation we have with ourselves it is also where we discover our conscience. Who wants to spend their twilight hours chatting with a drunken uncle, or a mass murderer? At least Richard III in Shakespeare’s play talked himself into his evil: “Shall I prove myself a villain” he asks. This is why his kind of historical villainy is not banal. “Shall I prove myself and live with the moral consequences” is not a conversation it is evident that the majority of our politicians are having with themselves just now. The exceptions are notable precisely for this reason.

Second, because thinking involves hearing another voice, it is also how we get to engage our minds with the rest of the world. To think is also to think from the perspective of another person.

This is the ‘enlarged mentality’ we need if we are to really exercise judgement—to think things through. To think from the perspective of another does not mean you have to like that perspective. There’s no moral requirement to empathise with people who hold different views from you. You don’t need to feel anybody else’s pain to be a good political citizen. But we do need the capacity to go visiting other minds if we’re going to make sound political judgements. The lack of this kind of judgement is a vice of both remainers and leavers.

And so it goes on. The adults with antlers stuck on their heads staggering around blinking into the void of a no-deal Brexit. The calling out of each other’s stupidity as though if we say it’s all stupid often enough the stupidity will stop. “You’re stupid; no you’re stupid!” Retweet with comment: “Idiot!”

Right now, we have the opportunity to press the pause button on Article 50. It not true to say this will merely delay the inevitable (the “kicking can” is merely yet another uselessly banal cliché). We urgently need to give our politicians—and ourselves—time to think.

“The manifestation of the wind of thought.” Arendt wrote about thinking, “is not knowledge; it is the ability to tell right from wrong … And this indeed may prevent catastrophes … in the rare moments when the chips are down.” The chips are down. So what now?