“The people have spoken, the bastards.” Dick Tuck, 1966
Many times over this last weekend, I considered leaving Facebook forever – until I realised I needed to use it for my work – thanks Zuckerberg, you’ve really stitched us all up, big time. Two or three times over the weekend, I drafted angry status updates on Facebook, with an ominous lack of emojis to show just how very, very um … ticked off I was (come on guys, this isn’t Vice).
My Sunday morning looked like: spend 10 minutes crafting perfect reply to annoying friend of a friend on Facebook; spend 20 minutes copying and pasting bits of this reply into a lengthy status update of my own; delete before posting. Repeat.
So why this split-digit personality? What could possibly be causing this mild-mannered millennial, one who usually refuses to share her voting preferences online – mostly as a protest against group think, but that’s for another time – to break the silence and go on a multi-exclamation-full-caps-no emoji rant?!
Well, that’s simple: I’m embarrassed by my generation.
Now, I totally get the fear, the hurt and the bewilderment. We’re all frightened. We’re all surprised, all worried, all shocked by the events of this weekend. I’m not objecting to the feelings. I’m objecting to the way they’re manifesting online.
First, I object to the proposal of a second referendum. This seems to be based on one of two ideas, as far as I can tell:
- “How is this democracy?” No one ever in history has said that democracy should be the preserve of those who “know best”, rather than of the ordinary people. Oh, wait… Our concept of democracy originally comes via the Greek word dēmokratia, meaning “the people hold the power”; nowadays, this principle is reliant on values of equality and universal suffrage, which most people tend to regard as generally good things. We disregard these principles at our peril.
- “People were not sufficiently well-informed/are not capable of making this decision.” Unfortunately prejudice, that old chestnut, is no respecter of persons. In order to prove that Leave voters were too ill-informed/illiterate to cast a credible vote and that the results should therefore be disregarded, we would need to demonstrate that Remainers by contrast, are exemplars of critical thinking, impervious to the bias of group think and the social media echo chamber, and all round, just better people, natch. As conclusive ways to prove this only currently exist in the imaginations of science fiction novelists, we may need to put a sock in this argument before our logic becomes even more embarrassing.
The thing is, the idea of a second referendum is not just illiberal, it’s also entirely impractical: the popular view amongst Leave voters is the idea that the political class – and London generally – does not listen to them and seeks to marginalise and discredit their views at every turn. Say what you like about the referendum result, but the subsequent fallout amongst the Remain camp seems to show that Leave voters might have a point.
It’s Turner’s safety valve all over again: if we, through a second referendum, take away from the people the one political recourse they have – their release valve – don’t be surprised if we have a revolt on our hands. If we thought the day after Brexit was bad, we won’t want to be around for that.
Finally to the other popular lament that has been doing the rounds on social media: “The old have stolen the future of the young.” Two thoughts on this:
- The future is always unseen, always unpredictable, never guaranteed. To say someone “stole it” in this sense – as opposed to the sense in which we use it to talk about murder/killing etc – is a fallacy. As Brendan O’Neill eloquently put it: “Young people say [this], as if the future were an already existing thing, a pre-determined, pre-wrapped gift they are entitled to, rather than something they make for themselves through their actions and their choices, exactly as those old people they hate had to do.” Compared to say, the decimation of the young during the two world wars, we’ve got it fairly easy. The young people who lived through those wars got back up and re-shaped their lives and their society out of that darkness. I’m fairly sure that we can, too.
- It leads on to my second thought – hello, utilitarianism! The argument that the greater good of the young should be weighed against the lesser rights of the elderly is one we’d be best to avoid if we don’t want to get all totalitarian-like. We should pay elderly people the credit due from years of tax-paying, service in wars, and even possibly – maybe – some experience and life wisdom that we lack. That certainly doesn’t mean we have to agree with them, but it means we don’t get to shut them up. How do we know they were only thinking of themselves, as commonly charged, rather than their children and grandchildren, or perhaps even just exercising the right to vote that many of them fought wars to retain, and which 64 per cent of us couldn’t be bothered showing up for? This is an ugly argument and we need to stop repeating it.
I don’t want to end this post with a clichéd: “Everything’s going to be ok, chin up!” and I certainly don’t want to undermine the seriousness and gravity of what we face now, as a generation. But if we descend into illiberal and prejudiced arguments now, we risk eroding the principles of equality and freedom of speech and expression that progressive people have always stood for.
If we do this, we will be the generation who brought down the UK. It won’t be on the Leavers, it will be on the millennials. We can’t let that happen.
In the words of Žižek (writing on the EU, in fact): “Every crisis is in itself the instigation of a new beginning, every failure of short-term pragmatic measures … a blessing in disguise, an opportunity to rethink our very foundations.” *
So, how do we do that? We engage. Amongst other things, we begin conversations with those who don’t think or vote like us; we get involved with politics in a local or even national level; and we engage with our communities and civic society, knowing our voice DOES count.
We do get to have a say in creating the future, so let’s make sure it’s an inclusive one; a future robust enough to grapple with real people and real concerns – in other words, real democracy.
*Slavoj Zizek, Against the Double Blackmail
Join threads on Tuesday, 12 July for TEA talks: the future of the UK – a millennial response to Brexit. Rather than dwell on the decision that’s been made, threads is looking for the best way forward. Get your FREE ticket here.