We need to globalise identity politics

With which collective of people do you most identify? Robert Peston, in his recent book WTF, raises the important question of identity politics. He asks: When questioned, do you describe yourself as English or British? There appears to be a strong correlation between people who describe themselves as English and people who voted Brexit, and between those who describe themselves as British and those who voted to Remain. I’m sure that much could be written and implied about such a correlation, but I shall resist. Instead I want to first share my own personal response to the question, and then make some general comments about the (hopefully) continued evolution of humanity.

When asked a formal question regarding my nationality or country of birth I have always replied “British” or “UK”. Reflecting on this response, however, it occurs to me that this is a likewise formal reply – I have always said it in a formal ‘matter of fact’ way, in a way devoid of any deep emotional attachment, and in a way that has little or no bearing on my political identity. And reflecting further, and no doubt opening myself up to a salvo of rebuke regarding elitism and privilege (none of which can possibly apply to my life), I would say that I actually identify myself as European. The whole structure of my thinking, my world view, has been developed by reading European philosophy, particularly French, German and Greek philosophy. And this philosophy cannot be separated from European literature, history and politics that, in various ways, has both promoted the spread of different philosophical approaches and caused them to go in and out of fashion. No, on reflection I am European – no other political identity comes anywhere close to explaining who I am. But is such an identity actually practical?

I can understand why someone would identify themselves differently, with a far smaller collective – one confined to a much smaller geographic area and one with a far greater degree of homogeneity. We have evolved to strongly favour our in-group – our tribe or community. Instinctively recognising a member of your own group through often subtle differences in physical characteristics and behaviour has had very obvious survival advantages. Through such instincts we have been able to assess the degree of threat from a person not personally known to us without the slow and cumbersome use of reason. During our evolutionary history our fledgling reason, in certain situations, has been too slow in assessing risk to life, and in many situations still is. Such evolutionary traits are surely at the root of human prejudices – our ability to ‘pre-judge’ a person based purely on a few simple characteristics. Instantly recognising a person as a stranger or non-member of our community, and as a result judging them as a threat to that community, has been a positive aid to human survival during our long evolutionary history. But this human trait has long passed it’s sell-by date. Not only does it no longer offer a survival advantage, it actually threatens our survival.

Some people would use the above argument to justify prejudice, and many other human traits, as ‘natural’. The fallacy of such an argument springs from the very nature of evolution itself – that evolution means evolution, that human traits are not fixed but adapt to circumstances. And the circumstances of human life on this planet have changed very drastically from those of our distant ancestors. One of the great problems we face is the relative speed (and acceleration) of social evolution in relation to biological evolution, and the struggle of the latter to keep up. Our current social life (and in this I include our political and economic life) is evolving at a rate quicker than it ever has in the past, largely on the back of technology that connects humanity across the world. Whether we like it or not we are becoming increasingly connected at the global level. Communities and groups of people who were once unknown to each other, and therefore not to be trusted, are now known. And once known, they no longer become such a treat. And of even greater importance, such treats that do exist can now be assessed through reason. But it’s not just that global humanity is becoming known to us – in so many ways global humanity is becoming actually connected to us. It is now next to impossible for any community to be independent. In all aspects, the political, the economic and the environmental for example, human life is becoming connected at the global level – and we desperately need to see, understand and act on this bigger picture.

So I fear that even my identification with Europe is fast approaching its own sell-by date. It may explain where we’ve come from, but it neither offers a route map to where we’re going nor, in evolutionary terms, offers much of a guide as to how humanity (a highly connected and inter-dependent humanity) will survive the many threats to its existence. We need to identify with a global humanity – a global species that needs to learn to respect and understand its relationship with the whole of the ecosystem in which it is embedded. This is a big ask. It is oh so much easier to identify with a relatively small and clearly defined group of similar people. But such an easy and comforting identification will, in all likelihood, prevent us from seeing the bigger picture upon which our long term survival depends.

Brexit and divorce

When philosophers discuss intentionality they use the term somewhat differently from most people. In philosophy it refers to the relationship between a person’s mind and an object. So, for example, when a person loves, wants, or believes, the person that they love, the cake that they want or the story that they believe forms the intentional object, whist the loving, wanting or believing describes their relationship towards that object. For some philosophers this relationship is very problematic, but I’m not one of them. Personally I find it a useful tool to help clarify our thinking regarding the relationship between a single person (mind/brain) and whatever it is in the physical or social world that may have gained their attention. A person (the intentional subject) may claim that they believe in ghosts. Providing that we can be clear as to the intentional object (an agreed understanding of what a ghost is – even as an abstract idea) and the nature of the intentional relationship (belief being the ability of the person’s world view to allow the existence of an object that cannot be detected by the senses), there is little to concern us. We do not have to have evidence of the actual existence of ghosts to understand what the person means.

However, what I do have a serious problem with is collective intentionality – the supposed relationship between a group of people and an intentional object. Take the simple claim that “the people of Bridport support their annual hat festival”. Using the structure of intentionality it quickly becomes obvious that a clear meaning becomes difficult to find. First, we have an intentional object, the annual Bridport Hat Festival, for which it is easy to produce a non-contentious definition. Second, we have the intentional subject, the people of Bridport. Now things start to get more complicated. Is it claimed that all the population support the festival, or just some of them? And if the latter, how many? Then we have the intentional relationship, the support. Even if we can clearly define the group of people who form the intentional subject (which I doubt), how do we define what they mean by ‘support’? This could range from simply walking into town to observe the hats being worn and uttering positive comments, all the way to spending months creating the most elaborate hat imaginable and parading it in the streets on the day. Any definition of ‘support’ capable of including the entire range would be close to meaningless. OK, I know what most people’s reaction to such analysis is: in ‘the real world’ there is no problem, and trying to create one either gets you angry or sends you to sleep. And most of the time I agree with you. But there are occasions when the implications of such statements, and their meaning, have very serious consequences – and Brexit is one of them!

Many people compare leaving the EU to a divorce, and even if you are not one of them it’s a useful comparison to make to highlight the huge problems associated with the former. Most divorces have a structure similar to that of intentionality. For each party there is a clear intentional subject (themselves), a clear intentional object (their current partner, soon to be ex-partner), and whilst it’s often not easy to find clarity as to the desired new relationship, it is at least possible. You can choose to avoid each other, have nothing to do with each other if you wish, providing the needs and interests of any children are taken into account. It is at least theoretically possible for each party to be both clear and support the desired post-divorce relationship.

However, no such clarity is possible regarding our future relationship with the EU. Any statement along the lines of “the British people have chosen to leave the EU” is close to meaningless. Whilst it is reasonably straight forward to define the intentional object (the EU as an institution), it is next to impossible to have any degree of clarity regarding either the intentional subject (the British people), or the existing / desired relationship between them. In order to hold a referendum in the first place the very nature of this complex relationship needed simplifying and condensing down to a binary leave / remain question. This simplified people’s thoughts and feelings down to a level of abstract meaningless. The only meaningful statement regarding the wishes, desires or beliefs of the British people is that of those that who voted, at the time of voting 52% voted to leave and 48% voted to remain. It is simply impossible to extrapolate from this what the British people want our long term relationship with our ex-partners to be. The ‘British people’ cannot be regarded as an intentional subject. As a collective they are a vast number of biologically distinct brains whose minds are unique in the details of their loves, wants and beliefs. And within this collective there will be an almost infinite number of variations around a large number of different perspectives.

So where does this leave us? Well, because Brexit is claimed to be about giving control back the British people, and because it is impossible to have clarity as to what the British people want their future relationship with their ex-partners to be, we have to have the opportunity to either approve or reject the relationship negotiated on our behalf by a small group of politicians. A divorce agreement may be negotiated by solicitors, but it has to be either approved by the person on whose behalf the solicitor was working, or else imposed by a civil court. No Brexit agreement will be capable of capturing the wishes of everyone, that is just impossible, but the individual people of the UK must have the opportunity to decide whether the new relationship on offer is close enough to their own individually desired relationship to be acceptable – or not. It took a referendum to get us into this mess, and it will take another to get us out of it. After that…please, no more referendums – ever!