The EU referendum result made me angry, very angry, anxious, uncertain, and sad, very sad. And like a great many people, I needed to express that anger, anxiety, uncertainty, and sadness loudly and viciously. No philosopher is immune to these needs, these natural feelings, and nor should we expect or demand otherwise.
As our initial shock subsides, though, I have been wondering how, in this circumstance, to be a philosopher? Now, do not confuse this with that meaningless cliche ‘I am being philosophical about it’ — this just amounts to the faux-intellectualisation of resigning yourself to the fates. Rather to seriously consider how to come to understand, act and react as a philosopher during this uncertain, over-wrought, divided time.
I am not offering a diagnosis, nor prescribing a resolution, simply that there are aspects of my blog that are relevant, potentially helpful, to each of us prepared to address this question for ourselves.
To begin with we need to get the name calling and one-upmanship out of our system. As I initially implied, we all need to feel our feelings, and express our emotions. We are human. However, once you have shouted, stomped, wept, got drunk, fell over, I suggest you reflect on your feelings, sort your knee-jerk anger from your deep anxieties, not to suppress them, but to truly address them. If philosophy’s ‘how to live’ is to ‘know thyself,’ then how to live right now is to properly and sincerely know what you feel and why you feel it.
Similarly, with the result causing such strong division, you are most likely now, by choice or accident, to be firmly on a side. Both sides presently appear to have stubbornly dug in their heels, a fight to the death. I acutely realise that the stakes are incomprehensibly high; nevertheless, it is a time for listening, really listening, ‘artfully listening.’ It will be painfully difficult, yet, necessary.
Anyone who feels that this does not apply to them, anyone feeling justifiably smug — well then you are just ‘being a dick’. No matter how smart you are only the ‘wilfully ignorant’ are certain they are right, especially right now.
Above all else, though, there has been a devastating and dangerous general failure in imagination. Even those campaigning for it, let alone we voting for it, failed to imagine the possibility of such a result. Meaning, regardless of the evidence prior to it, we generally failed to imagine its consequences.
This reveals a deeper, more insidious, troubling, failure of our imagination. The failure to imagine what it is like to be in a circumstance outside our present own. The failure to imagine what it is like for whoever or whatever we perceive as our opponent or threat. The failure to imagine ‘that could be me’. Or worse the refusal to imagine the possibility ‘that could be me.’
My mother (a philosopher of her own making) taught me this lesson of imagination. Although I now reside and vote in the UK, I am, grew up, Australian. I was a teen in 1990s Australia when mandatory detention was introduced for asylum seekers to deter the pejoratively labelled ‘boat-people’ (here’s one brief outline of this history). Amidst the political lies, media misrepresentation, racism dressed as patriotism, the white noise of arrogant ignorance being bandied about my home, and community, she, my mother, calmly and simply said:
‘Imagine. What if one day it was I or you who ended up on that boat? What would we hope for then?’
From then on, I have tried, with varying success, to imagine, what if that were me? And not only imagine those whose motives and beliefs I sympathise with, but those of whom I am ardently unsympathetic.
So if right now you find yourself imperiously shouting ‘I can’t understand why YOU think/believe/do that?!’
Please, try to imagine — what if that were me?
Because, all of us, even we philosophers, overestimate our capacity for compassion, comprehension, and understanding. Maybe if we can imagine it, we might care, comprehend, and understand. Then we can move forward.