Brexit's ugly sense of superiority

To believe that those who don’t agree with you are stupid or ill-intended is arrogant and dangerous

Photograph: Hannah McKay/EPA

Photograph: Hannah McKay/EPA

 

Sometimes, it seems wise to question democracy. It’s generally thought the most morally agreeable system, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t flawed or challenging to live under.

In the House of Commons in November 1947, Winston Churchill, quoting an unknown source, said: “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

I think we can all sympathise with this generally. The utilitarian democracy in which we live dictates that very large minorities are often left unhappy with a decision simply because the system dictates that the majority take precedence. Britain recently voted to leave the European Union with a majority of 52 per cent, leaving a rather substantial minority of 48 per cent very unhappy indeed. Media coverage and reaction on social media was largely chagrined, much of it determining that the British electorate must clearly be composed of racist bigots who are opposed to progress and mired in an antiquated philosophy of “splendid isolation”.

The problem with this is that democracy is the only system that allows us any real chance of self-determination in equal degrees, and you have to respect other people’s right to self-determine as much as your own. Democracy means accepting the majority view regardless of what it is, and imposing that view on a reluctant minority, no matter how large it may be.

There is rarely one moral or virtuous option in a referendum, and one immoral or unvirtuous one, although things tend to be painted that way.

Sense of superiority
If one considers Brexit immoral, and believes that the referendum should never have been held, then one does not believe in democracy, and cannot logically expect others to respect one’s own right to self-determine. Simply put, this reaction reveals a sense of superiority that dictates that all voices are not in fact equal, and that people – with the exception of those who agree with you – are either stupid or ill-intended. This is beyond arrogant and very dangerously presumes to see inside the minds of 17 million voters and determine what their intent was in voting to leave.

Of course we can look at a result and say, “I’m disappointed; I think we’ve taken the wrong direction”, but there wasn’t a morally right or wrong answer in this case. It is a case of clashing principles about what a nation should be, and what constitutes sovereignty. Financial fallout is very unpleasant, but should not be a consideration in making a decision based on one’s principles either way. If financial fallout were a primary consideration on questions of principle, the US would never have outlawed slavery.

Intellectual elite
To dismiss a majority decision (even a slim one) as “stupid” or monocausal is to suggest that democracy doesn’t work and that people need to be forced to behave according to a value system (usually the one of the complainant) that they simply don’t possess. Our country has a long history of being subject to a system like that under Britain. We of all people should respect a democratic decision – even one we may dislike or think myopic – and give people the benefit of the doubt that not all Leave voters voted based on fear or hatred of otherness.

Plato disdained democracy. He firmly believed that ordinary citizens were too intellectually inferior to make decisions about the direction or governance of the society in which they lived. He believed that we should be ruled by an elite group of the intellectually gifted who were trained from their youth to govern. Only these people were best-equipped to understand complex questions, he believed. Only these people could be relied upon to give fair thought to the greater good rather than pursuing their own base pleasures like dogs in heat. If people choose to obey laws, it is only because they aren’t equipped to break them, and fear punishment. Rather pessimistically, he determined that we are all ultimately selfish.

One cannot believe in both the above and democracy, so what’s it to be?