Yes or Out

Taking an agnostic position on an issue seems to be a somewhat unpopular stance these days; unpopular as a personal choice that is, not unpopular as something others are necessarily critical of. Generalising to an extreme on the matter, it seems we are in a state societally where sitting on the fence has lost its appeal. Being indecisive was, broadly, the default mode not very long ago; the attitude was, cartesian-style, if you don't know, be sceptical of all positions. Now it is: if you don't know, dive headfirst all the way to the bottom of the stance with the most evidence in its favour. Both approaches are philosophically suspect. Language is, and should be, able to allow us an even-handed articulation of our beliefs through the sophistication of the vocabulary we use. 'Yes' or 'No' is often a set of options, politically, psychologically, scientifically and in many other fields, which stifles the truth.

For example, asked 'do you want a referendum on whether Britain should be in or out of the European Union?' you might feel pleased to be given the choice. But unless you know what in or out actually entail, the question is an illusion of choice. It creates an unrealistic and contentless division between being 'in' or 'out', as though there is a gigantic line down the centre of our picture of Europe, with one set of states of affair on one side and one on the other, mutually exclusive and metaphorically black and white. Not only is 'in' or 'out' meaningless on the larger question, it is also fairly meaningless on the minutiae. Ask yourself one question about Europe, about any detail, and try to decide whether you are 'in' or 'out'. One the answer to which isn't common sense, that is, such as 'should there be standards of health and safety in the workplace?' Economic regulation is a key element politically when it comes to being in or out of the EU, but what does the average person know about the individual details of EU regulation? And how would one weigh it up in answer to the 'in or out' question? Even if you consider yourself to be more 'in' than 'out' (whatever that might mean), it wouldn't imply you have to throw yourself off the 'in' side of the fence into a political boat(!) It doesn't represent your opinion, it represents someone else's hijacking your tendency one way or the other for their own purposes.

One of the dangers of publicly asserting a strong opinion one way or the other on an issue, when you don't, or even can't in theory, understand the implications of your stance, is that you feel socially/politically obliged not to renege on it. The force of your assertion prevents you from being comfortable with saying "er…yeah, actually, I think I was wrong!" even though this is actually a quite reasonable u-turn in many cases. Or are politicians more obligated towards the party line than the truth? It is our fault as citizens as well, we don't forgive vulnerability from our politicians because we want them to be infallible, so we don't respect even the appearance of weakness. Decisiveness from our leaders is a quality, not a principle upon which good decisions are made. It's a by-product of good leadership. A good leader makes good decisions consistently, and doesn't change their mind, because those decisions are consistently based on good ideas. Not ever changing your mind, as a matter of principle, does not make you a good leader, it makes you a god-wannabe.

There is no justification, and no need, to oblige people to say yes or no, or declare themselves in or out all the time. Even politicians in a large number of cases. Because an opinion 'yes' or 'no' does not contain a descriptive element. Ah - you might retort - the descriptiveness is contained in the positions to which the politician is subscribing. But in this case the question, not the reply, holds all the information and power. What does one literally gain from someone else exclaiming 'yes'? Information? Hardly. Advice? Little. In general, one's inclination towards being either pro- or anti- Europe is a reflection of a feeling one way or the other regarding some aspect of our involvement with Europe. Legal, social, economic, political, cultural. Not an all-encompassing idea of being at all associated with that continent. Also, a particular aspect (such as economic) is usually a matter of how business is regulated in relation to Europe - not whether business should be done with Europe at all. The individual details of European economic regulation could, indeed, be more or less intrusive in the British economy, but this is really a concern dealt with by the language used to express what the regulations are. For instance, if a regulation is a matter of common sense to a particular British company, it will not be challenged by that company. If it isn't acceptable to them, the language and nature of the ruling may deserve revision. It is far from being a blunt question of 'yes' or 'no'.

Or should there be no regulation in that regard? Perhaps the ruling should not come from the European Union, but then, again, if it is a regulation which concerns business arrangements with Europe, the continental economic standpoint is of import to the formation of that policy. Economic, or any other type of convention, must respect the nature of the actual situations it manages, through engaging the people (and the politicians) with clear language which invites detailed, progressive and pragmatic advice instead of blunt affirmation or denial. Statute has to be formulated with a clear-sighted regard for the liability of circumstances to change and evolve, with explicit attention to common sense. And politicians need to find the language to investigate people's opinions accurately but also feasibly, rather than simply lumping us into positions under the banner of 'Yes' or 'Out'.




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