The EU debate has become a lamentable descent into petulance


It was the Swiss Psychologist, Jean Piaget who observed that “an egocentric child assumes that other people, see, hear, and feel exactly the same as the child does.” That children in the early stages of cognitive development are largely egocentric seems to be neither contentious nor illogical. I can remember engaging in fierce debates with my friends over the rules of ‘Hide and Seek’. We had the blind belief that we were the sole repositories of truth, that our rules were ‘the real’ ‘Hide and Seek’ rules and that this precluded the right of anyone else to say otherwise. If your rules were different to mine you were ‘a poo-poo head’, a ‘gay-lord’, or threatened with the ultimate social fatwa ‘you’re not coming to my party’.

It would be the sincerest hope of any rational-thinking person that all adults engaging in any form of political debate would have moved on from this – our cognitive development would have reached a stage whereby our convictions would harmonise with other competing opinions and our beliefs debated in a respectful environment of tolerance and understanding. Increasingly, with the EU referendum rapidly approaching, such conditions are vanishing. What ought to be an inspiring debate about personal outlook and vision is swiftly and worryingly descending into one characterised by bitter personal exchanges, disparaging remarks, and an outright disrespect for anyone with an opposing opinion.

We live in a society in which there are certain opinions and beliefs that the majority do, albeit to varying degrees, subscribe to: gender equality, racial tolerance, and religious liberty all form our society’s lingua franca. However we also live in an inherently pluralistic society, one whereby conservatives live alongside liberals, hawks alongside doves, traditionalists alongside modernisers, and crucially, ‘Bremainers’ alongside ‘Brexiters’. Neither sides of these debates possess monopolies on fact; these debates exist in the first place because both sides have equally valid points to make. The people leading such debates should be aware that their opinions are precisely that: opinions.

What is steadily becoming apparent is many people’s complete unawareness that a decision whether to leave or remain in the EU is a topic of personal preference, not universal fact – the referendum is happening and persists in completely splitting public and academic opinion because of this very fact.

I will personally be voting for Brexit on the 23rd of June. Having studied and considered the economic and political facts, and despite my Lib-Dem membership, I personally believe that leaving the European Union will benefit the country and uphold my liberal, democratic values. However, I will always respect anyone who has gone through a similar process of research and concluded that ‘Remain’ is the best option. With polls predicting students to largely be in favour of voting ‘Remain’ on June 23rd it’s very easy for the student community to forget this and chastise many like me, who will be voting for ‘Brexit’, as deluded halfwits. Equally, for many ‘Brexiters’, it’s very easy to lampoon people voting for ‘Remain’ as status-quo loving fools who have been taken in by establishment falsehoods.

With voter apathy in this country at an all-time high, we should not shoot down other people’s opinions, but rather, find out why and how they have arrived at them, challenge their assumptions and then ultimately, respect the fact that they have made a decision and praise the fact that they will be heading to the polls on polling day.

There is no crystal ball in this debate; we can’t supernaturally predict the outcome of either decision. The best we can do is state our opinion and explain why our decision will yield the best result. The EU is not an institution of absolute perfection nor is it one of total fault. Therefore, neither side of the debate can claim a monopoly on fact and accordingly, disparage or shoot down their opponents.

I have been subject to ridicule and derision when people ask my voting intentions. “Why on earth would you do that?”, “Do you even know how wrong you are?” are standard responses I have habitually heard. When people seek to disparage and scorn someone’s opinion they assume themselves to be totally right, as if their opinion cannot even be possible and crucially, that their opinion is better than the other person’s. That the only people who deserve their respect in debate are those enlightened enough to share their supposed objectively better and truer views and anyone who disagrees with them wilfully secedes their right to even voice an opinion.

This is an intolerance that has historically been associated with the UK’s political ‘Right’, and everyone, especially students, should be wary of adopting such vices.

By doing so, people on both sides of the campaign debase the real issue at hand and trivialise the matter. They make people who should be enthused about political participation scared of voicing an opinion. I have witnessed, both on campus and in social media this worrying trend of intolerance and implore those who care about the referendum, political participation, and basic social respect to avoid such tactics.

It can only be when we’ve matured beyond Piaget’s notion of the egocentric child that we can truly engage in such debate. What is worrying is that so many people on both sides of this debate are clearly no more mature than an arguing group of children unable to agree on the rules of ‘Hide and Seek’.

Photograph: Nicolas Raymond via Flickr

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