My 350 on BREXIT: Asking the wrong question

We need, like my daughter, to start rebelling against the monodimensional models of identity we are asked to conform to.

Monica Sassatelli
15 July 2016

My seven-year-old daughter (Italian mother, British father) declared, in English: “Mamma, I’m 100% Italian …” – Ah, light of my eyes – “… and I’m 100% English”. Oh. For a fraction of a second I almost started: “You can’t be 200% …”. But she’s right. Percentages are wrong, wrong as a way to talk about individual and collective identities. My daughter doesn’t feel like a split being, Italian when she likes pasta and English when it is Marmite: so that they may decide when you, individual or country, can stay or must go. She is wholly, completely Italian, completely English, and completely many other things too. If percentages can’t deal with that, they are wrong, not her. 

We need, like my daughter, to start rebelling against the monodimensional models of identity we are asked to conform to, whose consequences we live with. Think for instance of the identity question in the Eurobarometer survey. This periodic EU-wide survey asks people to choose: are you national or European? The option to be both is there, yet the alternatives are in a clearly hierarchical line: “Do you identify as national only, national and European, European and national, European only?” As well as the hierarchy, this deceptively simple menu pretends each option stands alone when clearly the real meaning lies in the reciprocal relationship with the others. Ultimately, whilst appearing to welcome plurality, the set options imply that ‘identities’ are pitched one against the other, in a model that clearly assumes a 100%, so anything but an exclusive identity conveys a split identity and a lesser one. It is no surprise with such a model of identity that only 2% across the EU choose ‘European only’. Questions of identity always presuppose a model of identity, and the answers can only reinforce it.

This was never a vote about the economy only. The result is now interpreted as a ‘protest’ vote, as a sign of deep disenfranchisement and malaise, which it clearly is, too. But it’s not the answers that are stupid; it was always the question, the implied identity question.

Bad questions produce frustration and get protest answers. Perhaps some of the youth absenteeism was also due to the absurdity of this choice for people whose memories are all in this century, when effectively being British and European go hand in hand, when you have always been 100% British and 100% European. We need to find new ways to recognise and enable the many, sometimes contradictory but nevertheless vital dimensions that make us up. We are 100% economic beings, and 100% non-economic too. 

In the aftermath of the historic British vote to leave the EU, openDemocracy is asking for our readers' thoughts on Brexit and what needs to happen next in 350 words. We've had an extraordinary response and you can read them all here

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