The discourse about Brexit at and around Westminster is thick with either/or thinking. Every action and every person is one thing or another. In or out, leave or remain, soft or hard. Such thinking has its value, of course, for distinctions are frequently necessary and invaluable. But they can also be dangerous if they are too tightly drawn and insufficiently attentive to detail, nuance and particularity.
Distinctions are particularly necessary, but also particularly dangerous, at times of stress, whether in individuals or collectives. The usual discourse at times of stress is one of fight or flight in situations of contest and survival – bargaining, dealing, negotiation, advantage, compromise, calculation, resistance, victory or defeat.
The focus is on win-lose outcomes not win-win. Others with whom one interacts are seen as competitors and potential victors or oppressors, not as partners in a joint enterprise. There is polarisation instead of a sense of shared space and understanding. Murdered MP Jo Cox’s much quoted vision of her constituency is systematically denied:
"Batley and Spen is a gathering of typically independent, no-nonsense and proud Yorkshire towns and villages. Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration, be it of Irish Catholics across the constituency or of Muslims from Gujarat in India or from Pakistan, principally from Kashmir. While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us."
Polarisation in such situations is particularly dangerous when it gets bound up with ‘people like us, people like them’ thinking. We can become enmeshed, and perhaps entrapped, in racisms, white supremacy and imperialism, sexism and misogyny, in-group and out-group loyalties and fears - a tangle of vicious circles and spirals.
This is where we find ourselves now - caught in a web of anger and frustration, resentment and betrayal, incomprehension and disbelief. The leaders who are supposed to bring us together have forced us further apart, using their speeches to pour oil on the fire instead of offering any moral reassurance or a concrete, high-minded, ethically-derived pathway out of the mess of Brexit divisions, contradictions and delays.
Whatever happens in the weeks and months ahead, these feelings are likely to persist and perhaps even deepen. So what can we do, and what is the role of faith communities and religious organisations, of spiritual but not religious movements, and of techniques like meditation and mindfulness that are supposed to help in processes of healing? Do they have insights, wisdom and resources of relevance for the population at large, and if so, what are they and how might they be used to facilitate post-Brexit conversations between leavers and remainers?
In England the Archbishop of Canterbury has declared that he wants to organize five days of public prayer starting the day after Britain withdraws from the European Union, and that he and the Archbishop of York, noting that social divisions “feel more entrenched and intractable than for many years,” are concerned about “the divisions within the major political parties which are stifling the emergence of a hopeful and viable vision for the common good in our communities.” Dioceses and parishes, they say, should pray regularly for local MPs, members of government and civil servants, “seeking God’s strength and wisdom for the responsibilities they bear.”
Further, parish churches throughout England have been advised to invite their members to come to the church shortly after Brexit for a chat and a cup of tea, and to consider questions such as “What effect has Brexit had in your family relationships, friendships etc and, if you disagreed, has it been possible to disagree well?”
Chatting over tea is always welcome of course, especially in the Church of England, but to start the process of bridging deep divisions we’ll need something stronger. As the Archbishops themselves recognise, the controversies surrounding Brexit have had a social and emotional impact on the everyday relationships and affairs of millions of people, not just members of government and civil servants, and those same millions need to be able to verbalise their feelings of anxiety and anger in safe spaces as a precondition for moving forward.
There are numerous ways this could be done, including truth and reconciliation commissions and citizens assemblies at the local level conducted in churches, trade union and political party branches, schools and universities, and community halls or associations. All the participants would be invited to face, in so far as they can, their own shadows, mistakes, failures, histories and denials. The outcome could be a sense of shared similarities of the kind evoked by Cox. An essential and central activity would be the narrating and sharing of stories, since a stranger, it has been said, is someone whose story you do not know. That has been a big part of the broader Brexit story.
The stories shared by both leavers and remainers would no doubt include tales of loss, grief, bereavement and banishment. Amongst leavers there is nostalgia for the time when Britain was ‘great,’ and a consequent longing to make Britain ‘great again’ by ‘taking back control.’ Amongst remainers there is guilt and sorrow as they realise that the multicultural harmony they have hitherto enjoyed has contained some wishful thinking, laced perhaps with a measure of complacency. Danny Boyle’s depiction of British tolerance and quirkiness at the 2012 London Olympics was perhaps more a celebration of a mirage than a reality.
What would these gatherings talk about in concrete terms? The questions for discussion proposed by the Archbishops could certainly be on the agenda, and in addition, I’d suggest the following:
- Do you remember where you were and what your feelings were when you heard the result of the referendum in 2016? In what ways have your feelings changed since then? How do you feel about people whose views are different from your own?
- This land you live in. Part of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales; part of the United Kingdom, the British Isles or Europe; part of western civilisation, the global north or Planet Earth. What do you like about this place, and what are you grateful for? What’s not to like, what are you ashamed of, and which things do you wish were different? How do you see the past of this place?
- In what ways, if any, do you feel not only English or British but also European? Which other European countries, if any, have you lived in or visited? How do you feel about people in other European countries?
- Is the world getting more friendly, would you say, and less dangerous, less threatening? Has it improved for you? Is it still improving? Is the best still to come? Or is everything going downhill, getting nastier, falling apart?
The point of these questions is to go deeper than differences over policy and legislation, to get to a place where people of different political views might find more in common with each-other. Once identified, those commonalities could form the basis of a coming together of sorts, a few steps forward in the journey to reinvent who we are as citizens of post-Brexit Britain (or post-post-Brexit Britain if we decide not to leave).
But a truth and reconciliation commission or citizens’ assembly needs to be expertly and sensitively moderated and managed, and it’s here that churches and other mediating organisations have insights, skills and resources to offer. I emphasise the value of spiritual experience in this process because getting anywhere when faced by deep divisions requires the limiting and sublimation of the ego and the concomitant growth of humility, an embrace for the dictum that less is more. To make progress, people on all sides will have to adopt a less judgemental view of the Other, less dualism, less either/or thinking, more both/and thinking, and more awareness that many ‘enemies’ are in fact projections of qualities in ourselves.
"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being...Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains an un-uprooted small corner of evil."
There are senses in which everyone is both a remainer and a leaver, both a conservative seeking security and refuge and an explorer seeking newness, otherness and adventure. This is one of the truths waiting to be re-discovered and re-affirmed in the conversations we need to have about Brexit locally and nationally.
As has been shown many times before in other contexts, there can be no reconciliation without truth-telling, and no truth-telling without a deep-rooted personal commitment to open up and listen. Any transformation of the post-Brexit landscape requires the transformation of us all.