The asymmetry of ‘leave’ and ‘remain’

There’s one perspective to the ongoing and intractable Brexit debate that doesn’t seem to have been discussed. When ‘remainers’ like myself point out that those who voted to leave did not know what they were voting for, we are usually met with a wall of hostility. ‘Of course we did’ is the choral and angry response. This response is angry because it is generally taken to be insinuating that either those who voted for Brexit were too stupid to know or understand the issues, or that they were gullible and misinformed by devious politicians. But this misses the point. Whilst individual voters may well have had an idea of what they were voting for, this idea could not have been as concrete or as clear as that for which ‘remainers’ had voted. This has nothing to do with the capabilities of individual voters. It results from a fundamental asymmetry between the two concepts.

Whenever we refer to anything in language, the word we use has a referent. So, to use the standard example used by philosophers down the centuries, when I talk about a cup I will have a very clear idea of what a cup is. Whilst I may have the image of an actual cup in my mind when I speak or write, like the one on my desk now, those listening or reading do not need to have exactly the same image to understand what I mean. Cups are very common items. Whilst they all vary to some degree in size, shape and design, they all have sufficient in common that they can be identified by anyone. Such is the case for most, if not all, actual physically existing things.

But what about more abstract concepts, like say marriage or being the member of a social club? ‘Marriage’ and ‘social club’ are both nouns like ‘cup’, and work in the same way in language. They too have a referent, but this time what they refer to is far more abstract. Yes, a social club may be located in an actual building such that people passing could point and refer to it as a social club, but that club is far, far more than the building. It is a complex set of relationships between those people who are members of the club. Some of these relationships may be formalised in a written constitution that can be referred to in a similar way to a cup, but understanding and applying that constitution will involve many abstract concepts that defy being written down. Marriage is also essentially a relationship, primarily between two people, but also, in actuality, often between two families.

The key term here is ‘relationship’. Relationships are very complex sets of behaviours, only some of which are written down in constitutions, marriage agreements, and the associated state laws. They essentially describe how individual human actors behave, respond and associate with other human actors in a variety of different situations – some formal, some informal, with many grades between. We may not be able to formally describe all the relationships that exist for us in any particular situation, but we ‘know’ them intimately. To varying degrees, they form part of who we are.

But what happens if we want to leave one of these relationships? If we are a member of a social club but fall out with the committee we are at liberty to leave the club and have nothing further to do with it. We may continue to meet and have some relationship with members of the club, but we can, if we want, completely disassociate ourselves from the club. Marriages can be somewhat more difficult. If there are no children, no joint assets, and no wider family involved, it is possible, following the formal divorce, to walk away without any agreement on a future relationship. However, when children in particular are involved, some type of ongoing relationship cannot be avoided. Some type of ‘deal’ is essential.

And so to the UK’s relationship with the EU. This relationship takes complexity to a new level. In addition to the formal treaties and agreements there are a host of informal relationships that have not only developed during the course of the life of the EU, but through the course of European history. So my point regarding the asymmetry between ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ is simply this. Whilst none of us is able to describe the full complexity of the UK’s relationship with the EU, for each of us this relationship, however strong or weak, however positive or negative, is real. When we say ‘remain’ we are referring to an actually existing set of relationships. However, when we say ‘leave’ we not only find it impossible to do the same, but we find it impossible to imagine what set of relationships could exist. We could only do so if a ‘clean break’ divorce was possible, and it isn’t. The term ‘leave’ does not, and cannot, refer to an actually existing referent. It is therefore impossible to know what ‘leave’ actually means.

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