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22 September, 2019 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 21 September, 2019 11:05:05 PM

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Dishonesty and denialism is a virus infecting public life

Gavin Esler
Dishonesty and denialism is a virus infecting public life
Billboard by the anti-Brexit group called Led By Donkeys, showing a quote from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promising a deal

Over the past few weeks, I have been travelling around the UK speaking to diverse groups about the future of Europe and the prospect of Brexit. Most of these public meetings are fun.

Some are truly inspiring but a few are a puzzle. Conway Hall is a famous London landmark, historically a venue of civilised debate on ethical issues. I spoke there on the topic of “the normalisation of lies in public life”. We all tell lies occasionally and we know it is wrong, yet sometimes we do it so as not to cause offence. “Yes,” we say, “I loved that shirt you gave me for my birthday.” Or: “Yes, your new hairstyle suits you.”

We are also often not truthful when purchasing something online when forced to tick a box showing we have read the terms and conditions. Have you ever read the terms and conditions? Me neither. I cannot ever remember reading thousands of words of T&C legalese. At the Conway Hall meeting, when talking about lying in public life, I was asked a question by a woman who said she had voted for Brexit in the referendum of 2016. When someone says: “I voted for Brexit”, I always ask which version of Brexit they voted for, since more than three years later, we still cannot agree what Brexit means.

“I voted for a ‘clean Brexit’,” the woman said confidently, explaining that meant “leaving the European Union with no deal on October 31”.

Unfortunately nearly every part of that sentence is impossible.

The words “clean Brexit” only became fashionable after a book of that title was published in August last year - not when we voted two years earlier. Moreover, the words “clean Brexit” have no real meaning, rather like previous Brexit slogans of having deals called “Canada-plus”, “Norway-plus” or “managed no deal”. Once you add in the word “plus” or “managed” to any “deal”, it can mean anything you want it to mean.

But the woman could not have voted as she now thinks she did for other reasons too. No deal was never an option on the 2016 Brexit referendum ballot paper. Prominent politicians wanting Brexit – Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson – explicitly stated that Britain would leave the European Union with a deal and, so they claimed at the time, a very good deal because, as they put it, “we hold all the cards”. Finally – and most obviously – in June 2016, no date was fixed for leaving the EU, so the woman could not possibly have voted to leave on October 31, 2019. That date was only fixed in March this year, and even now it might not happen.

The puzzle is how a decent, articulate human being like this voter could so profoundly delude herself about easily verifiable facts. Perhaps it is a tiny example of a phenomenon known more grandly as “historical negationism”. It means humans give accounts of the past by selectively (and sometimes deliberately) ignoring or denying troublesome facts which undermine their case.  Napoleon Bonaparte once wryly observed that history “is a set of lies agreed upon”. On the day I had the discussion in Conway Hall, British newspapers began running extracts of the autobiography of the prime minister who got us into the Brexit mess in the first place, David Cameron. His “factual” account of our recent history did not please either side in the Brexit debate. The Brexit supporting tabloid newspaper The Sun called it “Mills and Boon for Remainers,” referring to a particularly soppy kind of fantasy love story. A newspaper in the Remain camp, the Guardian, excoriated Mr Cameron for a self-serving account pretending that the referendum mess for which he was responsible was really a “boon” for Britain if the Leavers’ dastardly tactics hadn’t stopped him from getting his message across to the great British public. Mr Cameron’s account avoids the uncomfortable fact that until he forced a referendum upon us in 2016, membership of the EU was an issue of little concern to the vast majority of the British people, and the vote was largely to appease Eurosceptic elements in his own party, with the expectation that the Remain camp would win. He led a woeful campaign, lost the vote and his job to boot.

thenational.ae

 

 

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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