If I could sum up 2016 with one question, it would be: “How did this happen?”
My question is one which has been on the minds of many others these past several months. It is probably clear that, amongst other things, I am referring to both the British vote to leave the European Union and – as if that was not bad enough – the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. I have realised, however, that asking this question is itself the very root of the problem, and the reason for both Brexit and Trump. But let me begin with the initial responses to these events.
On November 9th, I asked my American friend, “How would you feel if you met a Trump supporter? Would you be angry?”
I asked myself the same question after Brexit. How would I react if I spoke with someone who contributed their vote to the British exit of the EU, and therefore to the unwelcome change in my own status, “stripping me” of my EU citizenship? Would I shout, pouring out my frustrations and objections? Would I refuse to engage with them, or alternatively, would I accept that their views were equally valid?
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, I was in a stage of disbelief. I could not believe that this had happened, and I was convinced that something would change the outcome. I thought, only 51.9% of the vote was pro-leave? That’s not enough of a majority for such a tremendous decision. I, along with millions of others, signed a petition for a second referendum, in the hope that this huge mistake could be rectified.
I now see that I was, in a sense, grieving. I was grieving for a loss of citizenship, of identity, of a belief system that I thought was solid and shared by those around me. I more or less experienced the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The first four stages combined into one challenging period of time. Not only did I deny the result, but I was angry at those who voted leave, and the ignorance that I blamed for their decision. I started to bargain with myself, thinking that even if we really had to leave (not in the near future, I hoped), perhaps we could still keep our rights as EU citizens? Most of all, I was depressed by the whole situation, and again asked myself, how did this happen?
So when, you may wonder, did I arrive at acceptance? It is an ongoing process. However, it is a process that has a normative element to it – I should accept the Brexit decision, as well as the election of Trump. This does not in any way mean that I need to agree with these decisions, but rather that they must be accepted as legitimate outcomes, even if they came as a shock to such a large part of the population. This leads back to the main question that I have been asking myself for months: “How did this happen?” The question in itself demonstrates the problem at hand: there were enormous rifts silently bubbling under the surface of our society of which many were apparently unaware. Why were these results such a shock for so many of us? Was it the fault of the polls?
A consequence of both Brexit and Trump’s election has been the unveiling of problems which many had misjudged or were even unaware of. There are divisions in Western demographics which were severely underestimated. In the UK, many of these have now become abundantly clear: the old and the young, those with university degrees and those without, the countryside and the cities. The reasons for such diverging voting patterns are diverse and debateable. Slavoj Žižek has argued that Trump supporters have arisen from a desire for change which comes from a deep-rooted dissatisfaction in the current system, a system which was not challenged by Clinton’s candidacy. This reading could analogously be extended to the case of Brexit. Another argument is that the blindness towards divisions in populations could be due to “the Facebook bubble” which has arisen in the age of social media. Others say that Brexit was due to a misleading (or just outright untruthful) media campaign, or biased media representation.
A recurrent theme in these explanations is a lack of communication between different sectors of society. This is where I feel that change is needed: accepting the surprising outcomes of Brexit and the US elections (even if we do not agree with them) will enable us to begin a dialogue in which we should try to understand each other’s views. The dialogue I am advocating could be with friends and family, or on a larger scale, through organisations which are calling for public participation in critical discourse regarding current affairs, such as DIEM25.
We cannot remain in denial; there will be no fruitful discussion whilst those of us who feel we have lost something are still in the first four stages of grieving. The fact that we can even ask ourselves “how did this happen?” illustrates the lack of communication and understanding between different sections of our society, and this is precisely what we now need to work to change. We need to get over our 2016 blues and move on.
Jessica Sofizade was born in London, UK, and did her undergraduate degree in Philosophy. She has studied in the UK, Canada, France and The Netherlands, and will soon move to The Czech Republic for her 2nd semester in the Euroculture programme.
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