At a recent academic conference that I attended, a ‘Pop-Up Salon’ on the UK’s decision to leave the EU (or ‘Brexit’ for short) was spontaneously organized following the announcement of the shock result. To get discussions going, the main organiser showed a couple of video clips where some ‘leave’ voters explained why they voted for Brexit. One of them crudely stated something along the lines (I’m quoting from memory): ‘I don’t mind EU immigrants, but I voted ‘leave’ to stop Muslims from coming to this country.’ The people in the audience laughed sarcastically. Another, evidently working-class, ‘leave’ voter just said contemptuously: ‘Look, the EU just spent X millions on art!’ Again, the audience laughed scornfully.
Following this opening, one of the participants in the Pop-Up Salon stepped up to the microphone and voiced his anger at the academics in the room. He argued that us – academics – laughing at Brexit voters was precisely the core of the problem: The elite had lost touch with ‘reality’, i.e. the worries of the ‘man in the street’.
I was surprised at his anger and it made me think. I asked myself, why did I laugh at the Brexiters’ arguments? Is it a bad thing to laugh at political opponents’ arguments? In this post I’ll take these two questions in turn.
So, why did I laugh at the Brexiters’ arguments? Put quite simply, I laughed because I found these – and many other pro-leave – arguments stupid. Stupid, because some of them even challenge the very basic rules of logic and the laws of causality (e.g. how does leaving the EU affect Muslim immigration to the UK?) and because others reveal a stunning level of ignorance about the EU for someone who takes the liberty of having an opinion on the matter.
However, I think the reason for the speaker’s anger was that he found it unacceptable that a group of privileged academics make fun of underprivileged working-class people who were not as lucky as we had been to enjoy higher education. That may be a fair point. It is certainly true that the level of education is partly determined by the socio-economic status of the family one is born into (as Bourdieu already told us) rather than merit. That is especially true in the UK where it is to an important extent socio-economic status not merit that determines the quality of education one gets (see here).
The problem, however, is that the level of argumentation around the EU referendum did not have much to do with lack of education, but rather with stupidity that resulted from deliberate obscurantism, conscious anti-intellectualism, and stubborn ignorance of even the most basic facts about the EU, which affected both working-class voters and rich, highly-educated politicians. This willful obscurantism has come to shape what one commentator has called the ‘post-fact world’. Obscurantism is inexcusable and worthy of derision whatever the socio-economic status of the person making the argument. Therefore, rather than an expression of elitism, laughing at such arguments reveals a frustration with a decline in the political discourse in Western democracies due to the rise of populist politics.
As an academic, writing about other people’s stupidity is a very risky business. Not only are we by definition under the suspicion of arrogance and superiority, but also it is easy to overestimate one’s own intellectual capabilities. Indeed, the psychological phenomenon of the ‘double curse of incompetence’ tells us that what leads us to make bad judgments or decisions (i.e. to being incompetent or stupid) is the lack of the same skills that are required to realize that we are indeed stupid. So, one should never be too sure of one’s own judgments.
Also, there is a temptation to attribute to ‘stupidity’ any divergence of opinion with our own: If someone disagrees with me, it must be because they are stupid. Yet, I am not arguing that all pro-leave arguments are stupid. And not everyone who voted leave did so because they are ignorant. The question of EU membership is as complex as the impact that the EU has on various aspects of economic, social, and cultural life in its member states. Some of these effects are ‘progressive’, some are ‘conservative’, many are ‘market-creating’, many others ‘market-restraining.’ Depending on where one stands politically, there may be very good reasons to be critical of the EU and to support leaving it (e.g. here).
However, the impression one gets is that such reasoned and well-informed arguments were not the ones that decided the outcome of the referendum. Therefore, and in spite of all these caveats, I think that stupidity – as a fact of political life, not as an insult – is an important factor in any explanation of the outcome of the EU Referendum. Some brave commentators have indeed convincingly made precisely this point (see here and here). I think it is important beyond the case of the EU Referendum in the UK and may be an important element in democratic politics that any democratic society ignores at its own peril.
But let us first define what we are talking about. The Oxford dictionary defines ‘stupid’ as ‘having or showing a great lack of intelligence or common sense’ (see here). ‘Intelligence’ is in turn defined as the ‘ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills’. Similarly, ‘ignorant’ – which is the term Ilya Somin uses in his book on political ignorance – is defined as ‘lacking knowledge or awareness in general. Uneducated or unsophisticated’ (see here). Finally, ‘incompetent’ – another term often associated with stupidity – is defined as ‘not having or showing the necessary skills to do something successfully’ (see here).
Some of these definitions are problematic. Thus, ‘common sense’ is a highly problematic and unclear concept. Therefore, I think stupidity should be more narrowly defined as a lack of knowledge, and/or the inability – or unwillingness – to express a knowledgeable and logically coherent argument. The important, thing is not to confound stupidity with lack of education. While the latter can be the cause of the former and while the OED definition of ‘ignorant’ does mention ‘uneducated’ as a synonym, this needs to be understood in a broad sense, not an institutional one. That is to say, you do not have to hold a higher degree to make ‘intelligent’ arguments, and holding a PhD does not prevent you from making very stupid ones. ‘Uneducated’ here can only be understood as not having invested the time and effort to become informed about a specific topic rather than not having attended university.
Defined in this way, stupidity is not necessarily related to socio-economic status. Indeed, the main reason, why I think advancing stupidity, as an explanation for the Brexit outcome should not be interpreted as an anti-democratic elitist argument, is that political ignorance and incompetence is not limited to the median voter. In actual fact, the most worrying aspect of the EU Referendum and its aftermath is the level of ignorance and incompetence among the political elite, be they advocates of leave or remain.
It starts with the main architect of the disaster – no, not Johnson, Farage, Gove, or Fox – but David Cameron. The level of incompetence in handling the referendum beggars believe. Cameron promised an ‘in-out’ referendum in the midst of a the contested 2014 general election campaign in the most irresponsible fashion. This was partly to fend-off increasing pressure from Eurosceptic backbenchers in his own Conservative Party, partly to cut the grass under the feet of the leader of the thriving UKIP – Nigel Farage. Some have argued that Cameron proposed the referendum quite possibly also in the expectation that the Conservatives would not win an overall majority in the election and could hence count on their coalition partner – the Liberal Democrats – to block the referendum plans without the conservatives losing face (see here). This plan – if there was one – backfired when the Tories did win the election, arguably at least in part thanks to votes retained or regained from UKIP due to the referendum promise. So, the referendum became inevitable. While this strategic miscalculation may be excusable – albeit irresponsible – the way in which the referendum was organized is not. In countries that have experience with popular referenda, any politician knows how delicate a matter such votes are and how much they are influenced by subtle factors that often do not have much to do with the substance of the matter at hand. Therefore, certain safeguards are built into any referendum procedure and the timing of popular votes is carefully chosen.
Switzerland is certainly the prime example of a representative democracy with direct democratic elements. In Switzerland, any vote on a topic with significant implications – such as an amendment or the constitution or the conclusion of international treaties of unlimited duration – are subject to an extra safeguard, i.e. it has to obtain the ‘double majority’ of the overall voting population and the ‘Cantons’. This guarantees that important changes are not made on a whim and that the rights of (geographical) minorities are protected against the ‘tyranny of the majority’.
Outside of popular referenda, literally any democratic country in the world knows similar safeguards against rushed and uninformed decisions that might have far-reaching consequences for a country. Most often such safeguards concern constitutional amendments, which are often subject to qualified majority requirements in the parliament.
It may be the absence of a written constitution and the resulting lack of expertise of British politicians with constitutional law matters, or the ‘winner-takes-it-all’ mentality of Westminster politicians that explains that no such precautions were taken in the EU Referendum. As a result, a small minority of 51.9% of the voting population could decide their own fate together with that of the other 48.1%....let alone those who could not vote and future generations!
Similarly, the timing of the vote was reckless: it was held at the end of June, in the middle of the European Football Championship (an event that can reinforce nationalistic sentiments), after University’s had broken up for the summer and major events such as the Glastonbury festival were taking place (one factor contributing to the very low turnout among young voters who were in their very large majority in favour of ‘remain’?). These may all seem like minor issues, but popular referenda, especially if they are on highly emotional issues such as immigration, often turn on very emotional rather than rational voting behaviours. In such contexts, seemingly minor factors may actually have an important impact on the outcome. Even if each one of these factors may not have actually decided the vote, the fact that the government did not consider them is a sign of a worrying level of incompetence or at least a massive overestimation by the government of its own credibility with the median voter…which is a form of ignorance too.
The second – even more striking – example of stupidity in relation with the EU Referendum is the utter incompetence of the ‘leave side’ when it came to formulating a plan for the case that they would win the vote. Before the referendum, ‘Vote Leave’ advocates alternatively invoked the Norwegian example or the Swiss one, as a model to follow in case of a Brexit. Norway is part of the European Economic Area (EEA), which implies far-reaching obligations to implement EU legislation with very little say in its formulation. Switzerland’s arrangement with the EU is based on a complex set of over 100 bilateral agreements that are currently facing their worst crisis since 1992, because Swiss voters decided in 2009 to limit the free movement of people. None of this was seriously discussed in the campaign. Other than these superficial references to other countries’ arrangements, the Vote Leave campaign’s ‘roadmap’ for the Brexit only mentioned individual policy decisions – such as abolition VAT on certain products – but no overall strategy for what a politically realistic arrangement with the EU might look like. The aim was simply stated as trying to "get a good deal in the national interest".
While this incompetence may simply be attributed to political opportunism, I think a more plausible explanation is sheer incompetence of the political elite. This in turn may be explained by the fact that it seems to be enough to be what Jürgen Habermas has called a ‘player type’ (Spielertyp) a la Cameron and Johnson (here in German), or - in slightly cruder terms – a ‘worldclass bullshitter’ to become a successful politician. Partly, the politicians’ incompetence may also be the result of the above-mentioned ‘double curse of incompetence,’ which Bertrand Russell so astutely summarised: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Now, is it bad to laugh at other people’s (stupid) arguments? it is for enthusiasts of (unlimited) democracy, who seem to consider that anyone’s opinion – however objectively flawed and uniformed – is valid. Referring to voters’ stupidity is treated as a taboo. Yet, stupidity is an important factor that plaid a major role democratic decision-making (see Ilya Somin’s above-mentioned book). Ignoring stupidity is dangerous. To quote once again Bertrand Russell, commenting in May 1933 on the rise of fascism in Germany: “What has happened? What has happened is quite simple. Those elements of the population which are both brutal and stupid (and these two qualities usually go together) have combined against the rest.” I find myself often reminded of that quote when reading about populist parties and politicians around the world these days.
As laudable as the intention not to vilify working class leave voters and take their concerns seriously may be, there can be no excuses for the level of ignorance of even the most basic facts that many of the arguments made around the EU referendum reveal. A functioning democracy – especially when direct democratic elements are introduced – requires a certain level of intellectual sophistication from anyone who wishes to participate. The privilege of being able to express one’s opinion in a democracy comes with the responsibility to at least try and inform oneself about the issues at hand. Many citizens have failed the nation by making a historical decision about the future of the country while relying on sources of information of questionable quality and on pseudo-facts that had been openly exposed as fabrications, misinformation, and indeed lies. Social background is no excuse for ignorance. That’s where it seems to me that ‘the man in the street’ – rather than the intellectual elite – has proven to be out of touch with reality. The sources of information one chooses to use may be as much a cause of ignorance than a lack of education. Evidence from the US, for instance, shows that the type of media citizens use as source of information may affect their level of knowledge or ignorance. Thus, one study shows that people who watch Fox News regularly know less than people who do not watch any news at all. Put crudely: to make an informed decision about whether EU membership is beneficial or disadvantageous for the UK (or oneself), it may simply not be enough to read The Sun and watch ‘Corrie.’ Jürgen Habermas recently commented on the British EU referendum arguing that the ‘infrastructure without which public politics cannot work has eroded’ (here in German). The media are an important part of this infrastructure, but have lead in the UK a trend towards what Germans call Volksverdummung (stupidification of the people).
Therefore, rather than being caused by socio-economically induced inferior intellectual capacities, political incompetence seems to be the result of intellectual laziness and deliberate obscurantism. Nothing expresses this attitude better than Gove’s statement that ‘people have had enough of experts’. Indeed, they have: established scientific facts are simply ignored, the opinions of experts derided or dismissed as propaganda. This applies not just to climate change and other scientific topics, but also to expert opinions on the economy and politics. In this context, ridiculing obscurantist opinions seems like a legitimate answer to me in order to point out how ‘out of touch’ with reality they are.
To be sure, some thinkers do consider hilarity in politics to be a very dangerous weapon. In his book about the ‘Eclipse of Reason’ Max Horkheimer describes the ‘mimetic impulse’ as a human tendency to identify with one’s own group (nation, race, etc.) and rally against ‘outsiders’. This mimetic impulse often takes the form of ridiculing ‘the other.’ He describes the ‘laughter of crowds’ as ‘the hilarity of madness’; the negation of reason and triumph of repressed natural urges. Interestingly, he cites Victor Hugo’s example of the British House of Lords as his main example and sees the British Parliament as a place ‘in which laughter triumphs over truth.’ (p.82) Laughing at your political opponents may hence be part of British political culture, which other political cultures may not share. In the comments section of the BBC News web page one could recently read very contrasting views on the debating style in the British Parliament. A US citizen commented: “This is such a welcome change from the US legislature. Love the collegiality, the willingness to listen, and the sense of humour.” A German national, on the other hand, commented that ‘British Parliament is hilarious. The speaker has to yell to be heard, everybody interrupts each other – such an immature, bad-mannered assembly.’ (see here)
Whether hilarity in politics is a good or a bad thing may remain an open question and ultimately boil down to taste. Still, a recently coined bon mot states that ‘we used to laugh at comedians and listen to politicians. Now we laugh at politicians and listen to comedians.’ This may hint at the fact that humor, hilarity, and ridicule have become important weapons to combat the ongoing shift towards an obscurantist post-fact world. Laughing at stupid arguments may indeed be an important way to expose the marked decline in the political culture in Western countries that increasingly drift into populist politics of fear and hatred.
 Dunning, D. et al. 2003. “Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(3): 83-7.
 The incompetence of politicians is not limited to the right of the political spectrum of course, but discussing the incompetence within the labour party and its leadership for instance would probably take another blog post or two.
 There has been some controversy around the actual turnout among voters of 18 to 24 years of age: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/09/young-people-referendum-turnout-brexit-twice-as-high?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Add_to_Facebook
 Russell, B. “The Triumph of Stupidity" "Mortals and Others: Bertrand Russell's American Essays, 1931-1935" volume 2, p.28