I’ll never be a ‘re-leaver’

Men vainly pushing huge stone

There has never in my lifetime been a more clear-cut case of light versus dark

Men vainly pushing huge stone
You’re going to need to push a lot harder than that.

Just a little post on why I am such a passionate Remainer.

I wasn’t actually all that pro-EU when all this referendum business started. I mean, I knew it was expensive, and could be more efficient, and sometimes seemed a little in thrall to the neoliberal economic model. But I also knew that it conferred huge benefits, in freedom of movement and trade and cooperation with our European neighbours. That was, frankly, enough to decide the matter for me.

But what made me so rabidly pro-Remain, so determined to stop this, was the breathtaking, unabashed wrongness of the Leave campaign. The sneering. The abuse. The lies. The threats. The casual, carefree use of logical fallacy. The racism. The ignorance. The creeping suspicion of foreign interference. 

And as if that weren’t enough, look at the Leavers themselves. Gove. Johnson. Hannan. Farage. Banks. Duncan Smith. Rees-Mogg. Hoey. Even May, when she switched sides, went from steely, sensible woman to bitch from hell. Can you think of one person associated with the Leave campaign with a scintilla of compassion or wisdom?

For me, this is no longer about clinging on to the status quo, or protecting against personal loss (although Brexit has already been costly to me not just financially, but in terms of opportunities lost and friends forced to leave).

No, now this is just about making sure the bad guys don’t win. There has never been, in my lifetime, a more clear-cut case of light versus dark. And I’m not about to step into the darkness, or even the penumbra, in the interests of an easy life.

Fuck you, Farage, and Banks, and Cummings, and Putin. For as long as there is breath in my body, I shall fight your perfidious Brexit.

***

Footnote: the Tories, the Daily Mail and their cabal of piss-breathing liars would have us believe that half of all Remainers have suddenly changed their minds and thrown their weight behind Brexit. This just three weeks after another poll by the same firm showed that people who thought Brexit was a bad idea outnumbered those who supported it for the first time.

Of course, this claim, like pretty much everything else that comes from a far-right source these days, is bollocks. I was going to devote a post to explaining why, but handily, @HelenDeCruz, bless her cotton socks, has saved me the trouble. (TL:DR; the questions were poorly phrased and the headlines were misleading.)

We’re not going away any time soon.

Ode to Brexit

Fucking terrifying picture of Theresa May, as most of them are

The UK may well end up hopelessly broken – but no turning back now! The people have spoken!

Ode to BrexitI

A ham-faced PM (one of Bullingdon’s worst),
On deciding that party, not country, came first,
Promulgated, to silence a sceptical few,
A vote on our membership of the EU.

So everyone picked a side: Leave, or Remain –
Some on principle, others for personal gain.
In a landslide the like of which no man has seen,
Leave triumphed by seventeen points to sixteen.

When Hamface stepped down, we were short of a Tory
To guide this now unshackled nation to glory.
Johnson? Gove? Leadsom? No; I was the Don
(Cos no one was quite sure which side I’d been on).

Brexit means trade with the whole human race!
(Apart from the neighbours we slapped in the face.)
Brexit’s a vow we won’t break – but hey presto!
We’ve scrapped all the pledges in our manifesto.

II

Some want a new vote. They say Leavers told lies!
Well, perhaps one or two comments were ill-advised:

The lawmakers in the EU are elected,
Passporting will be adversely affected,
Turkey’s not joining, we can deport crooks,
The EU’s accountants aren’t cooking the books,
We could have controlled borders (if I’d been arsed),
Leaving might reignite strife in Belfast,
The UK’s rebate isn’t going to be cut,
Gibraltarians might well get screwed in the butt,
We’re not bailing Greece out, we don’t get outvoted,
And bendy bananas? Well, he was misquoted!
The UK may well end up hopelessly broken –
But no turning back now! The people have spoken!

Brexit means Brexit, means fields of spun gold!
(With no one to pick it; migration’s controlled.)
And fishermen, able to fish as they please!
(Till 2019, when they’ve emptied the seas.)

Twat

III

Of course, for such marvels, a price must be paid;
There will be some downsides to our bold crusade.
But so what if some students from France are deterred
And tuition fees rise from insane to absurd?
Never mind if the banking jobs move to New York
And you pay a quid more for your leg of roast pork.
Meh, so tourists get spat at for speaking their tongue
And holidaymakers to Europe get stung!

Big deal if your freedom to travel is dead –
Just look at the sovereignty you’ve gained instead!
Don’t be sour that some millionaires sold you a pup;
Get over it! Move on! You lost! Suck it up!
Who cares if we’re furthering Putin’s agenda?
We took back control! Let’s go on a bender!

IV

We’ll get the best deal cos we’re strong and we’re stable.
Just look at the team that we’ve sent to the table!
There’s Johnson and Davis, disgraced Liam Fox!
(Forget, for the nonce, that they’re all massive cocks.)

I’ll show them who’s boss! I’ll be stable and strong!
Cos 17 million folk can’t be wrong!
I’ll give you the freedom to excoriate
The 1.6 billion Muslims you hate!

The SS Britannia will unfurl her sails
(But without Northern Ireland and Scotland and Wales)!
Brexit means mind-blowing plans for the nation!
There’s only one problem –

The implementation.

The art of the smear: how the far right destroyed public discourse

Girl throwing stone

Online debates these days unfold with all the dignity and decorum of a stag do at a Reading Wetherspoons

Girl throwing stone
Let him who is without sin …
“Whoever first hurled an insult at his enemy instead of a spear was the founder of civilization” – Sigmund Freud

Insults are nothing new. From the 4th century BC ding-dong between Demosthenes and Aeschines, to Shakespeare’s “You starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, you bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish!”, to Noel Gallagher’s laceration of Robbie Williams as “the fat dancer from Take That”, incivility is as old as civilisation. We start calling each other names in the playground and, if the Leave voters I’ve encountered online are any guide, there’s no upper age limit on abuse.

But suddenly, it’s Ragnarök out there. Get involved in an online discussion about anything from topiary to the Tweenies and the chances are you’ll be set upon within minutes. Political “attack ads” were once frowned upon; now they’re the norm. There’s hardly been a single positive message in the UK general election campaign thus far; it’s just been smear after slur after slight. Most modern debates – usually online, but increasingly in real life – unfold with all the dignity and decorum of a stag do in a Reading Wetherspoons.

It’s all rather odd, because as I’m sure you already know, attacking a person in this way, instead of the substance of what they’re saying (or in the case of political debate, their policies), is a fallacy: a failure of reasoning that renders a claim invalid. In this case – the argumentum ad hominem fallacy – abuse is invalid because the truth of a person’s statement has nothing to do with their character, past behaviour or friends. Just because it’s Tony Blair saying, “Two plus two equals four”, that doesn’t mean the real answer is five. Much as it pains me to quote Margaret Thatcher, on this point, she had it right: “If they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”

Civilisation is supposed to be advancing. We are devising ever better theories to explain the world, sending more kids to university, sharing more information, faster, than ever before. The use of logical fallacies should be declining, not increasing.

So why the recent explosion of invective? Some blame the global climate of fear since 9/11 and the ensuing jihadi atrocities. ­­­Some say it’s deindividuation: when we’re online, or part of a large group, we enjoy anonymity; our actions have fewer repercussions for us, either because we are untraceable, or we because we share responsibility with others. When we are at one remove from the consequences, our actions tend to be less inhibited.

Others point to the bubble effect, the fact that people tend to assort themselves into groups of like-minded people. If we spend too long in these echo chambers, hearing only what we want to hear, then we are likely to react more aggressively when someone attacks them.

These theories all have merit, but I don’t believe they are enough to explain the extent of the poisoning of discourse, or the speed with which it’s happened. Echo chambers have always been with us – we’re a tribal species – and abuse is less effective online than in the real world, because while we may be anonymous, our opponents often are too, so we don’t have as much informational ammunition.

There’s something else going on. I have a theory of my own, but before we go into that, it would be helpful to look at abuse in more detail. First, a key distinction. There are two broad classes of ad hominem, which serve different purposes. The first is relatively innocuous and is largely accepted as a legitimate debating tactic.

“You, sir, are drunk.” “And you, madam, are ugly … but at least I shall be sober in the morning.”

Winston Churchill’s zinger to Lady Astor is a regular chart-topper on “Top 10 Putdowns” lists – but like all ad hominems, it’s a fallacy. From a purely logical perspective, Lady Astor is in the right. Churchill’s comeback is fallacious; as well as being offensive, it’s irrelevant. He’s also drawn a false equivalence. While he is quite capable of controlling his level of inebriation, poor Lady Astor has no such dominion over the shape of her face.

But if Astor wins on substance, Churchill wins on style. This is a class of ad hominem that you might call a joust. It’s usually found in the context of the cut and thrust of repartee, and its purpose is to throw the opponent off balance. If your interlocutor has the upper hand in a discussion, a droll, well-targeted personal attack can move the debate to surer ground. Since people’s natural reaction to being attacked is to defend themselves, they’ll often attempt to defend the slight instead of driving home their advantage.

Jousts take place in real life, in real time, in the real world. If they hit the mark, they earn kudos for the wielder. Churchill’s comment may have been mean, but it was quick, it was (presumably at least partially) accurate, and it took some courage – presumably Dutch – because the target of his tongue-lashing was standing right next to him. Above all, it was funny.

Many of the greatest literary minds in history have been able practitioners of the joust. Chaucer, Swift, Pope, Voltaire, Johnson, Twain, Byron (“Posterity will ne’er survey/A nobler grave than this:/Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:/Stop, traveller, and piss”), Wodehouse (“She’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need”), Wilde (“I never saw anybody take so long to dress, and with such little result”) and Orwell (“He is simply a hole in the air”) all earned their stripes partly by tearing others off a strip. We excuse these slights, applaud them even, because they show qualities that we aspire to: intelligence, originality, speed of thought. Besides, there’s often a sense that the target had it coming. Who are you going to side with – the guy who won the second world war, or some judgmental fuddy-duddy?

The second class of ad hominem is the smear. It too is rapidly becoming an ingrained part of public discourse, but it is, I will try to argue, far more dangerous, and has no place there. Smears come in four main varieties.

1) Character assassination

Tweet by wanker about Macron

There’s really only one contender for the title of World’s Bigliest Trash-Talker. As of March 2017, Donald John Trump was estimated to have slagged off no fewer than 320 different people, organisations and … items of furniture. Yeah, he dissed a table.

Trump’s gibes have the same drawback as jousts – they’re irrelevant to the discussion – and none of the merits. They’re not funny. They’re inane, unoriginal, and, as often as not, false. They do not signal a quick wit, because for the most part Trump delivers them via Twitter, or in prepared speeches to adoring crowds. And they are anything but brave, because Trump’s opponents are rarely in the same room when he vilifies them. To compare the US president’s infantile taunts to Shakespeare’s eloquent excoriations is to stick a Lego staircase next to the Taj Mahal.

Trump tweet about reporter
The “reporter who no one has heard of” was David Cay Johnston, winner of the Pulitzer prize for journalism.

And yet here he is, signing poorly drafted executive orders like baseball cards, merrily topping up the swamp with the contents of every septic tank in America, and hooking his drives ever closer to the nuclear bunker. How so?

When you look at the Mango Mussolini’s modus operandi, all becomes clear. Shower your enemies with insults; see which gains the most traction (ie likes and retweets); then use it again and again, until it becomes irretrievably associated with the target. So Hillary Clinton becomes “Crooked Hillary” at every mention; the New York Times “the failing NYT”; and rival for the Republican nomination Ted Cruz “Lyin’ Ted”.

These remarks are not designed to artfully throw Trump’s opponents off balance or to enhance his comic credentials. They’re not really directed at his opponents at all; they’re aimed at the wider world. Trump is not trying to undermine what his rivals are saying now, but everything they have ever said. These are cynical, systematic smear campaigns. And incredibly, through sheer force of repetition, they worked.

Most people are smart enough to realise that, just because a hay clump stapled to an overripe satsuma repeats something over and over again, that doesn’t mean it’s true. Unfortunately, it seems there are just enough credulous idiots out there for Trump’s bullying tactics to pay off. By means of a million gutless, leaden, charmless, bogus backstabs, Trump managed to destroy the credibility of everyone who stood in his way.

TL;DR: Your argument is rubbish because you are rubbish.

2) Tu quoque

Tu quoque tweet

“L’hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend a la vertu.” – François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld

The tu quoque – Latin for “you also” – is a special case of ad hominem also known as the appeal to hypocrisy. Here, instead of trying to undermine the target’s argument by maligning their character, you are attempting to do so by pointing out things they have said or done in the past that contradict their current position.

A tu quoque often feels somehow more cutting than a basic ad hominem, because, well, no one likes a hypocrite. However, it is just as invalid as a criticism, because it too fails to disprove the premise. Whether your past or current actions are 100% consistent with your view or not is completely immaterial. Let’s take a recent example.

On March 22 this year, the UK’s esteemed prime minister, Theresa May, stood up in parliament and delivered a broadside against Labour frontbenchers who had sent their children to grammar and private schools. The aim, of course, was to expose the hypocrisy of Labour, who as a party oppose the creation of more grammar schools. But as well as being unfair, May’s point is entirely without merit.

We live in a world where personal and public interests do not always align. (This is why we need governments; to balance private freedoms against the general good.) Politicians aren’t just politicians. They are also, despite appearances, human beings, and many of them are parents.

When you’ve got your MP’s hat on, grammar schools are a bad thing. Most studies have concluded that while they might benefit the few who attend them, they have a deleterious effect on other schools; they suck in all the best pupils and the best teachers, and regular schools suffer as a result.

But now look at the question from the viewpoint of the MP as parent. Grammar schools exist. The kids who go there do better. Given the choice between sending them to a grammar or to a comprehensive, which way do you swing? The effect of your decision on other people is infinitesimal – but it could make a huge difference to your child. You’re technically a hypocrite if you choose the grammar, but it doesn’t mean your opposition to the principle of grammars is wrong.

Tweet slagging off Lily Allen

When Lily Allen and Gary Lineker spoke out in defence of refugees last year, they were bombarded with incandescent messages along the lines of “Well, how many are you taking into your mansion?”

Like May’s tirade, the detractors were missing the point. It isn’t Lily Allen’s job to look after refugees. There are lots of childless couples who’d probably be more than happy to take in a Syrian orphan, for example. The alt-right are constantly frothing at the mouth about the atrocities committed by Isis – but how many of them are donning combat fatigues and heading off to the Levant? If Allen and Lineker are hypocrites, so are they.

Few of us have the time, the equipment or the expertise to devote our lives to solving all the world’s problems. There are others better placed to tackle these matters: police, governments, charities. All we can do is flag them up, perhaps donate some cash, or if we’re lucky enough to have a free weekend, organise a trip to Calais to hand out clothes and food.

The fact is, we’re all hypocrites on a regular basis. Have you ever sat in gridlock and moaned about the traffic? You’re part of the problem! Ever merrily sucked on a fag while gravely warning a young relative never to take up the habit? Pot, meet kettle! Worried about overpopulation – and you have two kids? You’re a fine one to talk!

TL;DR: Your argument is rubbish because not every single thing you have ever said and done in your entire life has been 100% consistent with it.

3) Circumstantial ad hominem

The implication that a person has taken a position purely because it suits their agenda; they cannot be trusted on a particular issue because they have a horse in the race, or their judgment is otherwise clouded.

There’s sometimes something to this one. Most prisoners on death row insist that they are innocent, because it’s hugely to their advantage for others to believe them. However, by strict logical criteria, their claim is not automatically untrue simply because it is in their interest. We just need to take it with a healthy pinch of salt.

"You would say that" tweet

 

TL;DR: Your argument is rubbish because you are biased.

4) Guilt by association

Fucking idiot's tweet

Fetch the Nurofen. We are now entering the realms of spectacularly twisted logic, where the cognitive gymnastics can induce migraines in the unprepared.

4) is essentially 3) on steroids. The association fallacy is the most egregious and toxic of ad hominems, since it attempts to invalidate someone’s point by smearing them on the basis of her membership of, or tenuous association with, a particular group.

It’s become depressingly common practice, in online discussions, for your opponent to try to dig up dirt on you. They’ll read your profile, scan your previous tweets or comments, even Google you in their quest for incriminating evidence. Failing that, they’ll use whatever they find to try to pigeonhole you.

Why? Because then they can write off your opinion on the basis that they have already written off the opinions of everyone in your group. “Aha, you live in London! Of course you’d parrot pro-EU propaganda – membership benefits the metropolitan elite!” (Forty percent of Londoners voted Leave.)

As well as committing the same logical misstep as the other smears – implying that a person’s identity is somehow relevant to their point – the association fallacy asks us to accept two further false propositions: a) that the entire group’s views and values are without merit; and b) that everyone in that group thinks and acts in exactly the same way.

Loath as I am to cut the hate-fuelled shitrag that is the Daily Mail any sort of slack, the continued attacks over its historic sympathy for Hitler and the Blackshirts make no sense. For one thing, everyone involved with the paper in 1934 is dead. New office, new owner, new staff. The words “the Daily Mail” now refer to a different entity; there is no immortal “Daily Mail soul” that inhabits everyone who sets foot in its offices. (True, the current team is starting to look more and more like its historic incarnation, but from a logical standpoint, there is no reason why this should be so.)

The guilt by association fallacy effectively means that no one can ever be right, because it holds that your view is worthless if you, or any group you have ever been associated with, have ever done anything wrong.

Telltale phrases: “Typical Leaver”, “You liberals are all the same”, “Just what I’d expect from a Muslim”.

TL;DR: your argument is rubbish because I consider (erroneously) that everyone in the group I have assigned you to (erroneously) is wrong about everything.

Another Watson tweet

I used to think that humanity was slowly waking up to the preposterousness of generalisations like “All men are bastards”, “All Jews are stingy” and “All Gypsies are thieves”. But suddenly, writing off entire cross-sections of society at a stroke is enjoying a renaissance.

I picked the Daily Mail example for a reason. Of all the smear campaigns mounted in the last few years, one of the most sustained and successful has been the coordinated effort to discredit the entirety of the world’s journalists – or, to use the dismissive alt-right term, the “MSM” (mainstream media).

Organisations like the Mail, Express and Fox News haven’t helped the cause with their rabidly partisan headlines and editorials, and it’s true that the Independent, for example, has a strongly pro-EU slant. But the far right demagogues would have you believe that every journalist in every media outlet in the world is part of some huge conspiracy to deceive you, to keep a boot on the throat of the working classes and maintain the status quo.

The alt-right pursue this narrative by seizing on any and every mistake, oversight or lapse of judgment from any publication or broadcaster and magnifying it to ludicrous proportions. So, because the Guardian once ran an erroneous story about Jeremy Corbyn sitting on the floor of a train, we now cannot believe any Guardian story we read. Because Buzzfeed runs listicles and fluff pieces on its site, its investigative journalism is worthless. Because the BBC once published a news item about the negative effects of Brexit, it is irredeemably biased in all matters. The fact that Nigel Farage – an MEP for a party with no representation in parliament who only bothers turning up for work to sour the UK’s foreign relations – gets more airtime than any other politician in the UK is neither here nor there.

Yes, the mainstream media have made mistakes. And yes, some lean in a particular political direction. But on the whole, they try to give a reasonably balanced view of things. They are bound by ethical standards and libel laws, and most submit to the oversight of a regulator. When they get things wrong, they apologise, they retract, and they print corrections.

Again, most people don’t buy into the alt-right’s absurd narrative. But a small, significant section of society have swallowed the lie, and now routinely reject any facts from mainstream sources as “biased” or “fake news”. To them, all of the media – from the Independent to the Guardian to the Mail to the BBC to ITV to CNN to the Times to Al-Jazeera to Buzzfeed to the South China Morning Post to the Dumfries & Galloway Standard – are all part of some vast conspiracy to prop up the metropolitan elite. We have now reached a point where a Brexiter, in a discussion about Brexit, will demand that you provide evidence to back up your point – and then, when you do, airily dismiss it because it happened to be published in the Sunday Times.

Idiot tweet

So if no conventional news sources can be trusted, who are these people listening to? Who has stepped into the information vacuum to expose The Real Truth? Blow me down with a feather, if it isn’t those selfsame alt-right demagogues! The alt-right demagogues, whose newsgathering resources generally stretch to a Twitter and YouTube account and a camera in their mum’s basement. The roving-reporter alt-right demagogues, like Paul Joseph Watson, who openly admits that he hardly ever leaves his Battersea flat, and Julian Assange, who has been trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy for five years.

(This post is plenty long enough without a diversion into the shameless mendacity of the alt-right, but I’ve posted a few examples here, and there are plenty more at Snopes, FactCheck.org and FullFact.)

Farage Breaking Point poster

It wasn’t enough, of course, to smear the media. They are, after all, just mirrors to majority opinion. If a new order is to be imposed, all the traditional institutions must be undermined.

Dominic Cummings’ “Take back control” was very clever. The NHS promise on the bus probably did it for some people. The Breaking Point poster, even though immigration from outside Europe had precisely jack shit to do with the EU, undoubtedly won over a few racists. But for me, the real stroke of genius from the Leave contingent, and the turning point of the whole campaign, was Michael Gove’s “People have had enough of experts.”

Never mind that he was told to say that by one of the exact same metropolitan elite experts he was maligning. Never mind that he apologised abjectly for the comment the next day and retracted it months later. In one pithy phrase, Gove manage to articulate the fury of millions of underachievers. He also single-handedly destroyed the last scrap of trust the public had in the system. Suddenly, the opinion of the man in the street was just as valid as that of someone who had spent years mastering her subject.

Gove’s (or, rather, Cummings’) ludicrous argument, that, because some trusted individuals once made an incorrect prediction, all their predictions are worthless, was the final justification for a Brexit vote among a decisive group of waverers. This arrant nonsense, combined with parallel whispering campaigns – Boris Johnson merrily defaming the EU in his columns for the Telegraph and Spectator, and the relentless demonisation of immigrants and Muslims in the Express, Mail, and far-right “news” sites – was what dragged Leave over the line.

For years, liberals ignored all this mudslinging, I guess because they assumed no one was gullible enough to believe it. Hopefully, they’re waking up to the fact that they can’t afford to ignore it any more.

(I’ve got more to say on this subject, but I’ve already wittered on for too long. Part two will follow shortly.)

Project Fear Watch

Fear from Inside Out

Will there come a point when people realise that the cost of Brexit is too high?

Fear from Inside Out
“Project Fear!” he cried, fresh from posting a particularly harrowing still from an Isis video.

During the referendum campaign, just about every warning of potential drawbacks to the UK’s departure from the European Union was dismissed as “Project Fear”.

Sure, there was hyperbole. Hyperbole has been a part of political discourse for as long as there has been political discourse. When you’re presenting the case against a proposition, you don’t set out the best-case scenario.

But on this occasion, even the soberest, most reasonable predictions of even the more neutral commentators were met with screams of “Scaremongering!” Which is odd, given that even some of the more rabid Leavers quietly admitted that the UK would almost certainly suffer some damage, at least in the short term.

Every time a financial expert was quoted as expressing reservations about Brexit, the Leave camp would trot out a contradictory prediction from a different economist. If a business leader spoke out against leaving, they’d find another who was in favour. If an academic was anti, they’d produce one who was pro. This gave the false impression that opinion was evenly divided, that there was practically nothing to separate the two sides.

But the reality is, 90% of all economists were against Brexit. Some weren’t sure, and only about 5% thought it would be a good idea. Similarly, the bulk of business leaders and an overwhelming majority of academics warned of dire consequences. And slowly – perhaps more slowly than expected, partly because of Theresa May’s dithering – we are beginning to find out just how right they were.

So on this page, I’m going to try to keep a record of Brexit bad news stories. It’s not going to pretend to be balanced – why should I be balanced? The Express isn’t balanced, the Mail isn’t balanced, Breitbart and Infowars sure as hell aren’t balanced – and it’s not going to be comprehensive, because I simply don’t have the time. If you like, you can help out by posting useful links in the comments below. I will, however, try to link as far as possible only to broadly reputable sources.

The point of this is not to say “I told you so”. Well, not entirely. It’s more about keeping tabs on things so that we can learn from our mistakes and try not to be such dead-eyed twats in future. Will there come a point when people admit that the cost of Brexit is too high?

Economy

Few benefits to 15% fall in sterling

Spending on clothing hits five-year low

UK labour shortages reported as EU worker numbers fall

UK faces big squeeze in living standards

Post-Brexit surge in economy comes to an end

Food ‘could rot in fields’ without cheap migrant labour, say farmers

Goldman Sachs to reduce City head count by half

Lloyds, JPMorgan Chase, HSBC Holdings, Lloyds Banking Group and UBS Group to move jobs out of London

Hi-tech financial firms flee amid Brexit doubts

London ‘no longer best place’ for fintech startups

Brexit will cost UK 30,000 jobs in finance sector

Airlines ‘will have to relocate to Europe after Brexit’

Cosmetics firm Lush to move expansion plans abroad

Brexit-related bank moves could cause financial instability across Europe

Rolls-Royce posts record losses after Brexit

BMW to pull production of E-Mini from UK

UK will lose €40bn of direct EU funding after Brexit

Brexit jeopardises £487bn of US investment in UK

EU and UK ‘heading for economic cold war’

1,000 jobs at risk as shoe retailer Brantano goes into administration

40% of games companies considering relocating to EU

Vote begins to bite as rising food and fuel bills hit retail sales

Portion sizes shrinking to hide rise in import costs

Customs gridlock could damage UK trade

Brexit migration controls could push retirement age beyond 70

Leaving EU could cost UK billions in extra tariffs

Parts of UK that voted Brexit ‘most vulnerable to its effects’

100,000 euro clearing jobs under threat

UK inflation rate rises to 2.3%

UK loses EU ‘crown jewels’ of banking and medicines agencies

Higher education and research

UK universities tumble in world rankings over Brexit concerns

Applications to UK universities down 7% since Brexit vote

Erasmus scheme may exclude British students after Brexit

UK will be ‘poor cousin’ of European science after Brexit

Heriot-Watt University announces axeing of 100 jobs

Britons ‘bumped off’ EU medical research grants

EU academics already planning to leave UK

Consumer

Apple raises price of apps by 25%

Apple laptops go up by as much as £500

Microsoft PCs rise by up to £400

Toblerone maker reduces weight of bars

The Great Tesco Marmite Shortage Scandal

Price of Guinness, Baileys to rise because of Brexit

Price of chocolate bars set to rocket

Confectionery sizes to shrink after Brexit

Cost of making a car in UK could rise by £2,400

Brexit set to push up price of champagne and prosecco

Sound system manufacturer Sonos raises prices by 25%

Brits may have to pay to visit Europe after Brexit

UK tourists will have to pay mobile phone roaming charges after Brexit

Social

Brexit may be final straw for some couples

32-year-old man who has lived in UK his whole life told to take citizenship test

Dutch woman who has lived in UK for 30 years may have to leave (Two of many such cases)

Applications for Irish passports rise by 42%

3 million EU citizens could face ‘deliberate hostility’ policy

EU citizens face legal limbo after Brexit

Britons living in EU face Brexit backlash

Hard Brexit means hard border for Ireland

Brexit jeopardises Northern Ireland peace process

Damaging Brexit could fuel Welsh independence movement

Brexit threatens territorial status of Gibraltar

Ending free movement is no quick fix for low wages, say Lords

Immigration unlikely to fall by much after Brexit

Sturgeon seeks second referendum on Scottish independence

Global reputation

Brexit has damaged UK’s reputation among young Europeans

Race hate crimes/far right terrorism

No, they’re not “fake news”.

Brexit jeopardises fight against terrorism

Far-right activist’s shocking rant on Channel 4 News: ‘Take in a Syrian refugee, I hope you don’t get raped’

Vile solicitor launches racist tirade at mother and son on train

Man kicks Muslim woman in stomach, causing her to lose unborn twins

Hate crimes have risen by up to 100% since Brexit

Man kicked to death by gang ‘for speaking Polish’

Gang inflicts serious head injuries on teenage refugee in Croydon

The cowardly, brutal murder of Jo Cox MP

Other

Warnings of customs chaos at ports in event of hard Brexit

EU working to push UK out of Euro space agency

Brexit will delay nuclear power stations

Senior civil servants considering stepping down over Brexit tensions

Gibraltar poses threat to post-Brexit aviation access

Ryanair will have to suspend flights in absence of Brexit deal

EU countries line up to host European Medicines Agency

Racing industry concerns over end of free movement for horses

Top orchestra quits Britain over Brexit migration clampdown

UK Sport warned of more Brexit funding cuts

Number of EU nurses coming to UK down by 90% since referendum vote

Thousands of doctors may quit UK after Brexit

600,000 could lose access to clinical trials

Top chefs refuse to move to London because of Brexit

Brexit could hinder UK efforts to fight corruption

Hard Brexit will mean up to 40% tariffs on UK agriculture exports, an end to free healthcare in the EU for UK citizens, loss of passporting rights for the City, and an end to the Free Skies agreement, Davis admits

Since I’m probably not going to be updating this as often as I should, for all the latest on the EU clusterfuck, check out Jon Henley’s excellent weekly Brexit briefing for the Guardian.

NB: The jolly impressive Brexit Shitstorm Forecast is a much more comprehensive resource on the same subject. I don’t want to steal their thunder. However, since it tries to be both compendious and balanced, there’s a lot to get through. My page will just consist of edited lowlights.

Bastards and fools: an open letter to my MP

Cartoon: everyone queueing up for wrong, easy answer

An open letter on Brexit to my MP, Keir Starmer QC

Cartoon: everyone queueing up for wrong, easy answerKeir Starmer QC MP
House of Commons
London
SW1A 0AA

February 10th 2017

Dear Keir,

Why did you become an MP?

Your previous job, as director of public prosecutions, was better remunerated, so it can’t have been for the money. You seem a humble and conscientious sort, so I doubt it was for the glory. Was it, then, because you wanted to make the world, or at least your country, a better place? I ask because I’ve been wondering whether your actions of late are fully consistent with that aim.

I’m not a religious man, but I’d like to quote you a passage from the Bible that offers an insight into the wisdom of crowds.

Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to releasing to the multitude one prisoner whom they wished. And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. Therefore, when they had gathered together, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’ For he knew that they had handed Him over because of envy.

The governor said to them, ‘Which of the two do you want me to release to you?’

They said, ‘Barabbas!’

Pilate said to them, ‘What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?’

They all said to him, ‘Let Him be crucified!’ (Matthew 27:15)

The argumentum ad populum – the contention that something must be right simply because most people believe it to be so – has been recognised as a fallacy since Thucydides. The unspoken truth behind the representative democracy we have accepted as our political system is that ordinary people are not good at governing themselves.

Ordinary people do not have teams of advisers. Ordinary people do not have a civil service to carry out exhaustive research on the pros and cons of any proposed policy. We do not always have top-drawer educations, or the luxury of spare hours to meditate on problems. Few of us are able to see even the small picture clearly, never mind the big one. This is why we entrust MPs with the running of the country.

Never has there been a more exquisite demonstration of this point than the EU referendum. It’s clear beyond a shadow of doubt that hardly any Britons – on either side – bothered to acquaint themselves even fleetingly with the workings of the European Union, or the benefits and drawbacks of membership, prior to the vote. Those who did found themselves confronted with hysteria, hyperbole and rampant disinformation.

Even now, when I engage in online discussions with Leave voters, I find the majority still parroting the flagrant falsehoods published in the Sun, Mail and Express and on far-right conspiracy websites such as Breitbart and Infowars: lies about bendy bananas, lies about EU accounts never being signed off, lies about Turkey’s imminent accession and David Cameron’s World War Three (it was, as you know, a triumphant bit of straw-manning from Boris Johnson).

While I do not doubt that some people voted Leave in good faith and in full possession of the facts, some of the reasons I have seen and heard have ranged from the trivial to the downright absurd.

Even before the vote, it was clear that many of these motivations were incompatible. Opponents of free movement, for example, cannot possibly have their wish at the same time as those who want to create a flexible, deregulated “European Singapore”. We cannot both drastically reduce immigration and give more money to the NHS. Whatever shape Britain (or, as seems likely, its former component parts) is in when Brexit is over, a sizeable proportion of Leavers are going to be bitterly disappointed – on top of all the Remainers, and many of those who didn’t vote.

'We voted leave because of immigration'

Hannan: "No one voted Leave because of immigration'

No one can say with certainty how deep and lasting the damage wrought by Brexit will be. (That fact alone should have been deterrent enough.) Most of the unaccountably maligned “experts” are pessimistic: between 3% and 9% off the country’s GDP, job losses in the tens or even hundreds of thousands, cooperative enterprises such as Erasmus and Cern wrecked, reduction in revenue for universities, loss of tax and talent from the skilled migrants now making plans to work elsewhere, and a colossal dent in the UK’s soft power. Even many Leavers quietly admitted that the UK might suffer economically and politically, at least in the short term, though they assured us that the advantages (the muezzin call of “Sovereignty!” that we hear five times daily) would eventually compensate.

Should article 50 be triggered, the ultimate fate of the country will hinge, of course, on the exit negotiations. The omens here are not good. We started out by offending our longstanding allies with our arrogant (and baseless) announcement that we would be better off without them. Theresa May’s bullish stance and the casually offensive remarks of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage then rubbed salt into the wound. And given that the EU is keen to make the prospect of leaving as unattractive as possible to deter other members from following suit, and given our woeful shortage of skilled trade negotiators, I see very little chance of us emerging from these talks with a lovely cake and a pleasant throb in the belly.

The UK, then, looks set to end up poorer, more divided, and more isolated on the world stage – at a time when the authoritarian right is enjoying an alarming renaissance, when Donald Trump’s presidency is destabilising world peace, when radical Islam still poses a potent threat, and when Vladimir Putin’s expansionist ambitions are gathering momentum.

Brexit risks being not just a faltering step backwards from economic, political and cultural standpoints, but a giant leap.

It comes as no surprise, then, that applications from foreign students to study at UK universities have already fallen by 7%. It will not shock you, either, that a large number of EU citizens resident in the UK are making preparations to leave. For some, the vote on Wednesday 8th February against the amendment on article 50 guaranteeing their rights was the final straw.

These are not scroungers, dossers or health tourists. These are hardworking, talented human beings who contribute hugely not just to the economy, but to society. They have jobs, they speak English (often to a higher standard than some of the natives I’ve encountered online), they have built lives here, and many have found love here. But their abysmal treatment at the government’s hands, and the new wave of xenophobia unleashed by the referendum vote, have made them feel unwelcome, and uncertain about their futures.

We risk throwing out not just the bathwater, but the baby, and the bath.

I’ve heard North Korea’s nice this time of year

I should add at this point that, if the government persists in its pursuit of a recklessly hard Brexit, if liberal values continue to be scorned and undermined, if racially motivated attacks continue to multiply, then I will be joining them in leaving. Am I overreacting? You be the judge.

Never mind that Brexit has destroyed my retirement plans. Never mind that the vote has already cost me almost £2,000 in increased holiday costs and grocery bills. What truly horrifies me is what seems to be happening to my country.

For simply airing the possibility that a hard Brexit might not be the best possible outcome for the country, or for suggesting that perhaps not every single Muslim on these shores is a western-hating rapist intent on killing us all, I have been called a traitor, a moron, a “cuck”, a “libtard”, and worse. For espousing views that I once saw as synonymous with the land of my birth – openness, tolerance, cooperation, trust – I have received multiple death threats.

I suddenly live in a society where where perfidious hatemongers like this man have acquired unquestioning followings in the hundreds of thousands.

A society where views like this, and this

'I hope all the refugees freeze to death'

and this

Guy threatening to kill Tim Farron

and this

Picture of drowning migrants labelled 'scroungers'

now routinely go unchallenged.

A society where behaviour like this, this, and this is becoming normalised. People are being verbally and physically abused, in some cases killed, for the crime of wanting to help other people – or simply for wearing the skin they were born in.

The country is falling to bastards and fools: bastards who weave lies and fools who believe them.

'The EU arliament is not elected'

If this is the new Britishness, then I want no part of it. I refuse to contribute any more to a country that tolerates, or even celebrates, racism, ignorance and spite. I’ll go to Canada, or Ireland, or Germany, where something like the British values of old still pertain. And I know for a fact that I will not be the only one.

A promise is just a promise

Theresa May seems intent on pursuing Brexit to its most brutal extent, no matter the cost. One can only assume that this is because she regards the referendum as a form of contract with the people of the UK; a promise.

But governments break promises all the time. The Tories broke nine of their 2015 manifesto pledges within 100 days of taking power. At least three more have gone for a burton since June 23:

Conservative manifesto: broken promises of Brexit

But there is a larger problem here. What if fulfilling one promise means breaking others? What if enforcing a disastrous Brexit leads, as it well might, to the breakup of the UK? To new borders and sectarian strife in Northern Ireland? To lost jobs, to further cuts to the NHS, to higher taxes, more austerity? Who is to say that the Brexit promise outweighs all others?

Politicians don’t like to make U-turns because they think they are a sign of weakness. But sometimes, backtracking is the bravest thing you can do. The sunk cost fallacy has been acknowledged as a fallacy for almost as long as the argumentum ad populum. You can always turn back. And sometimes it is the only sensible course of action.

In any case, Brexit is not the “will of the people”. It is the will of at most 17.4 million people – a total that undoubtedly included many who were voting purely in protest at Cameron and austerity. Even fewer wanted a hard Brexit, with all the upheaval and economic woe that it will entail.

I was delighted to discover that you were standing as my MP. You seemed that rare and precious thing: a politician with brains, integrity, conviction. A man who thought and spoke well and was not afraid to take an unpopular stance. As a result, in the 2015 general election, I put a cross next to a Labour candidate’s name for the first time. When Labour lost, and Jeremy Corbyn took over the leadership, I thought he, too, seemed a decent man.

But unless you, and the Labour party, abandon your policy of pusillanimous submission to Theresa May’s every unmandated whim, unless you begin making substantive efforts to minimise the damage wrought by Brexit, and in particular, unless you start offering some credible support to my European friends in this country, whom you have, until this point, unforgivably betrayed, I will have no choice but to switch my allegiance to the Liberal Democrats, the only party that has shown consistent integrity on this issue. Until I emigrate, of course. Then you can do what the hell you like.

History is studded with stories of people in power faced with difficult choices. On the one hand, the safe option: give in to the will of the most vocal, even though they know the consequences are likely bad. On the other, ignore the clamour of the ill-informed, have the courage of your convictions, and choose the more difficult, but ultimately more beneficial, course of action. Those who choose the first path are invariably, like Pilate, reviled. Those who choose the second are feted as heroes.

You don’t eradicate the language and behaviour documented above by appeasing it. You eradicate it by fighting it with every sinew. Every day these bastards are not resisted, they grow bolder. To allow a hard Brexit is to pander to their tiny-minded, combative, backward, binary vision of the world.

How will you be remembered?

Yours

Andy Bodle

A patriot and a traitor

Bulldogs in union jacks

I am British, and glad to be British. But first and foremost, I am a human being

Bulldogs in union jacks
You do not represent me.

A fair few insults have been lobbed my way over the last six months. “Snowflake.” “Moron.” “Condescending prick.” “Cuck.” “Elitist.” “Libtard.” Most of them hit with all the force of a bullet thrown by a child, because most of the lobbers know nothing about me, and the rest know nothing at all. The most interesting one, by virtue of its sheer absurdity, was “traitor”.

The reasoning, I think, is that by arguing for the UK to stay in the European Union, or at least to remain on the closest terms possible, I am somehow denigrating it. Because I would prefer that my motherland remain a member of a progressive trade and customs union than become an inward- and backward-looking pariah state, I deserve, in the eyes of some, to be thrown in the Tower.

This is wrong-headed on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin, but here goes: I love my country. I love the gnarly combes of Exmoor, the wind-lashed crags of Gwynedd, Oxford’s defiant skyline, Whitby’s apologetic charm, the breathless majesty of the Lakes, Edinburgh, august and Escherian, the clumsy clash of then and now that is London. I love the internationally scorned food and the wildlife and the literature and the heritage and the majority of the people, and I don’t even mind the climate (England’s rainy reputation is overblown, and it’s never too hot or too cold for more than a few days). Crime is low, unemployment is low, the police and judiciary aren’t a law unto themselves, and until recently at least, most of our politicians seemed to rate the common people’s needs almost as highly as their own.

In short, I’m a reasonably well-travelled man, and I’ve yet to find another place on earth I’d rather live.

Now I’ve always been under the impression that when you love something, you want the best for it. And I happen to think that close cooperation with your neighbours, unfettered trade, attracting the best talent from around the world and open borders (with appropriate security checks) are beneficial to the UK – more so than isolationism, anyway – and 40 years of relative peace and prosperity would seem to back me up.

Only in the mind of a raving lunatic could taking a sober view of your country’s strengths and weaknesses be equated with hating it. Only someone who has read the Daily Express and nothing but the Daily Express could pretend that an aversion to huge risks being taken with your country’s economy and reputation is tantamount to treason. If your dad wants to bet the family house on a poker game, it is not treacherous to try to dissuade him. You’re doing it for his welfare as well as yours.

You are free to disagree with any of my reasoning here, any of my logic, or indeed my conclusion (provided you have reliable evidence to back it up) – but don’t you fucking dare question my motive. I may not be your kind of patriot, but I will defend the values of this country with my dying breath.

Whether I am proud of my country is a different question. Yes, I feel lucky, and grateful, to have been born in a relatively safe and prosperous country, where the citizens enjoy extensive choice, wide-ranging freedoms and where many, if not all, have opportunities to improve themselves. And during major sporting events, I generally root for England or Team GB, because, well, it’s more fun if you pick a side.

But proud? What’s your definition? In my view, you can only truly be proud of something if you have personally contributed to it. If you write a good book, or help build a sturdy house, or raise a child who wins a public speaking competition, then you are perfectly within your rights to be proud. But I don’t believe you have that privilege if your connection to the success is entirely coincidental.

Between 1845 and 1852, a million Irish men, women and children died during the potato famine, thanks largely to negligence by the British. Does that make you feel bad? From 1899 to 1901, 28,000 Boer women and children and at least 20,000 black people died in concentration camps set up in South Africa by the British Empire. Do you accept personal responsibility for that? During the Mau Mau rebellion of 1952 to 1960, at least 5,000 Kenyans were tortured by British soldiers. Shouldn’t you be ashamed?

Of course not. You had nothing to do with any of these events. But if that’s your logic – if you won’t carry the can for things you didn’t do – then how can you bask in the glory of England’s 1966 World Cup victory in 1966? How can you take pride in the Industrial Revolution or the Battle of Waterloo when you had no hand in either? How can you take any credit for Team GB’s Olympic medal haul in Beijing?

I’m careful not to litter, I pay my taxes, recycle, hold doors open for people, give odds and sods to the homeless, donate to a few charities and generally try to show consideration to my fellow man. But since I consider such behaviour the baseline for human decency, and since none of it has made Britain appreciably greater, no, I can’t say I feel proud, per se. And unless you’ve personally done something to add to the country’s wealth or reputation, neither should you.

I have a theory as to why the Brexit debate has divided the country so bitterly – why facts and reason are so often tossed aside in favour of emotion and aggression, and why so many people, from both Leave and Remain camps, have “doubled down” since the vote, becoming ever more convinced of their own rectitude and ever angrier with their opponents. It all boils down to this question of national pride and to our core sense of identity.

Most psychologists are agreed that humans base their self-image – the picture you have of yourself in your own head – on a few simple concepts. There’s no consensus on which is the most important, and they probably vary from person to person anyway, but chief among them are gender, ethnicity, religion, nationality, region, sexuality, age, political affiliation and job. If someone were to ask, “Who are you?”, you’d probably reply something like, “I’m a middle-aged straight white British male writer.”

These concepts are very important to us – fundamental, in fact, to our sense of wellbeing. When they are threatened, we become defensive, sometimes to the point of irrationality. This may be why people are often accused of being “hysterical” when they talk about race issues, or gender equality. Because these subjects are so precious to us, we don’t always think straight when thinking and talking about them. We use emotive language, we oversimplify, our hearts run away with our heads.

For some people, their race and/or nationality is such a core component of their self-image that it blots out everything else. It trumps values, personality, rational argument. According to their maddeningly simple world-view, things like me are good and things unlike me are bad. Tell them they must choose between saving the life of a white British paedophile and a Pakistani doctor and they’ll choose the Brit every time.

I am not immune to those impulses. When someone attacks my gender, or my town, or my football team, I feel that rush of blood, and I want to spring to the defence of the People Like Me. But I also know that this sort of tribal thinking is dangerous.

When your mind works this way, in this automatic, tribal, binary, type-1, caveman kind of way, you think of life as a zero-sum game. You think every gain for another tribe is a loss for your own. But history shows us that life is categorically not zero-sum. Trade benefits both parties. Marriage (happy ones, at least) benefits both parties. The most successful creatures on earth – ants, bees, termites, chimpanzees – are the social species, the cooperators, the traders, the sharers, the communicators, the dividers of labour. It is the unparalleled cooperative skills of humans that have propelled us to become the dominant life-form on earth.

Tribal thinking – the unthinking, slavish devotion to People Like Me – lies behind all the -isms: sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia. Tribal thinking has been a major factor in every war.

But we move on. Sexism, racism and homophobia are on the wane, for good reason. The more humanity shakes off this mindset, the further it advances. Our time on this planet has been marked with less violence and fewer wars because we have slowly figured out that US VERSUS THEM is not the answer. US WITH THEM is infinitely more productive.

That’s why I try to fight the tribal impulse. Certainly, nationality and race are measures of how we see ourselves, but they’re not the only measure, and they’re probably among the least useful ones. Instead of building our self-image on accidents of birth, we can use other foundations: the company we keep, what we say, what we write, what we do.

I am British. I am glad to be British. But I am not glad to be British simply because I was born in Berkshire. I am glad to be British because a majority of people with whom I happen to share this little isthmus share many of my values. Values of tolerance and curiosity and openness and inventiveness and hope. And if those values are ever eroded, I may well stop being glad to be British.

I am British. But first and foremost, I am a human being.

I had planned to bang on at my usual mind-numbing length about the relative merits and dangers of patriotism and nationalism and the differences between them, but while researching this post, I discovered that far finer minds than mine – some of the greatest intellects ever to stalk this earth – have already done most of the heavy lifting. So to round off, here’s their wisdom on the subject.

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
Samuel Johnson

“Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons.”
Bertrand Russell

“Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”
Albert Einstein

“The love of one’s country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?”
Pablo Casals

“Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.”
George Bernard Shaw

“If I knew something that would serve my country but would harm mankind, I would never reveal it; for I am a citizen of humanity first and by necessity, and a citizen of France second, and only by accident.”
Montesquieu

“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, I am a citizen of the world.”
Socrates

“Borders are scratched across the hearts of men
By strangers with a calm, judicial pen,
And when the borders bleed we watch with dread
The lines of ink across the map turn red.”
Marya Mannes,  Subverse: Rhymes for Our Times

“Nationalism is a silly cock crowing on his own dunghill.”
Richard Aldington

“Patriotism, the virtue of the vicious.”
Oscar Wilde

“A patriot loves his country; a nationalist hates everyone else’s.”
Georges Clemenceau

“Patriotism is the love of one’s country and the desire to serve her; nationalism the hatred of others and the desire to do them ill.”
Pierre de Coubertin

“Patriotism is a kind of religion; it is the egg from which wars are hatched.”
Guy de Maupassant

“The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war.”
Sydney J. Harris

“Nationalism is a state of mind permeating the large majority of the people and claiming to permeate all its members; it recognises the nation-State as the ideal form of political organization and the nationality as the source of all creative cultural energy and economic well-being. The supreme loyalty of man is therefore due to his nationality, as his own life is supposedly rooted in and made possible by its welfare.”
Hans Kohn,  The Idea of Nationalism

[Thought I’d better put a positive one in, for balance. But there really aren’t many.]

“It is not easy to see how the more extreme forms of nationalism can long survive when men have seen the Earth in its true perspective as a single small globe against the stars.”
Arthur C Clarke

The Twelve Days of Brexit

EU wrapping paper

If only 12 was the end of it.

EU wrapping paper
Really. You shouldn’t have.

On the first day of Brexit, my true love sent to me
A lie on the side of a bus.

On the second day of Brexit, my true love sent to me
Nigel Farage
And a lie on the side of a bus.

On the third day of Brexit, my true love sent to me
Fake news sites
Nigel Farage
And a lie on the side of a bus.

On the fourth day of Brexit, my true love sent to me
Bob Geldof shouting
Fake news sites
Nigel Farage
And a lie on the side of a bus.

On the fifth day of Brexit, my true love sent to me
“Unfinished business”
Bob Geldof shouting
Fake news sites
Nigel Farage
And a lie on the side of a bus.

On the sixth day of Brexit, my true love sent to me
Jo Cox’s killing
“Unfinished business”
Bob Geldof shouting
Fake news sites
Nigel Farage
And a lie on the side of a bus.

On the seventh day of Brexit, my true love sent to me
Leave voters crowing
Jo Cox’s killing
“Unfinished business”
Bob Geldof shouting
Fake news sites
Nigel Farage
And a lie on the side of a bus.

On the eighth day of Brexit, my true love sent to me
Andrea Leadsom
Leave voters crowing
Jo Cox’s killing
“Unfinished business”
Bob Geldof shouting
Fake news sites
Nigel Farage
And a lie on the side of a bus.

On the ninth day of Brexit, my true love sent to me
One country splitting
Andrea Leadsom
Leave voters crowing
Jo Cox’s killing
“Unfinished business”
Bob Geldof shouting
Fake news sites
Nigel Farage
And a lie on the side of a bus.

On the tenth day of Brexit, my true love sent to me
Look, sterling’s crashing
One country splitting
Andrea Leadsom
Leave voters crowing
Jo Cox’s killing
“Unfinished business”
Bob Geldof shouting
Fake news sites
Nigel Farage
And a lie on the side of a bus.

On the eleventh day of Brexit, my true love sent to me
Food prices rising
Look, sterling’s crashing
One country splitting
Andrea Leadsom
Leave voters crowing
Jo Cox’s killing
“Unfinished business”
Bob Geldof shouting
Fake news sites
Nigel Farage
And a lie on the side of a bus.

On the twelfth day of Brexit, my true love sent to me
Bankers decamping
Food prices rising
Look, sterling’s crashing
One country splitting
Andrea Leadsom
Leave voters crowing
Jo Cox’s killing
“Unfinished business”
Bob Geldof shouting
Fake news sites
Nigel Farage
And a lie on the side of a bus.

***

On the thousandth day of Brexit, my true love sent to me
Mass unemployment
Scots independence
Fresh Irish troubles
Bye, bye Gibraltar
Endless remoaning
Tourism waning
Health service failing
Colleges closing
Expats returning
Town centres burning
Fascists saluting

Bankers decamping
Food prices rising
Look, sterling’s crashing
One country splitting
Andrea Leadsom
Leave voters crowing
Jo Cox’s killing
“Unfinished business”
Bob Geldof shouting
Fake news sites
Nigel Farage
And a lie on the side of a bus.

Logical fallacies: weapons in the information wars

It's Megatron. He's a Decepticon, innit? Oh, come on, it was either this or yet another picture of fucking Pinocchio.

In the era of Brexit and Trump, it’s more important than ever to be able to tell truth from post-truth

Transformer Megatron
It’s Megatron. He’s a Decepticon, innit? Oh, come on, it was either this or yet another fucking picture of Pinocchio.

“If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.” ― Adolf Hitler

In my last post I talked about cognitive biases, or errors in thinking. Now I want to move on to logical fallacies – errors in communicating. It’s sometimes difficult to see the difference between the two because there’s so much overlap between them. If you believe (erroneously) that all Muslims are terrorists, then you are going to argue that all Muslims are terrorists. But you can also believe something that is true and argue it incorrectly. The truth gets lost somewhere between your brain and your tongue (or tweet).

Very broadly speaking, cognitive biases are stupidity, while logical fallacies are lies, or distortions of the truth. But there’s a complicating factor: lies can be told innocently (you believe them to be true), or maliciously (you know they are untrue but want to persuade other people that they are true). We’ll come to that. It’s probably best if I just crack on.

(First, a note: committing a logical fallacy does not in itself mean your point is wrong. If I claimed that, I would be guilty of the fallacy fallacy. It just means that your argument is invalid, and you’ll have to find another way to support your view. And sorry about all the Latin. I didn’t name these things!)

A priori argument

AKA rationalisation, proof texting.

Starting out assuming something to be true (some pre-set belief or dogma) and then seeking out only arguments – or pseudo-arguments- that support it, and ignoring all those that contradict it.

Usually involves …

Appeal to emotion

Using emotive or loaded words to make your argument instead of neutral ones. People respond more viscerally to emotive terms and are thus more susceptible to persuasion.

“The #TrumpRiot is yet another example of how the alt-left is infinitely more dangerous, violent & intolerant than the alt-right.” – Paul Joseph Watson

Often goes hand in hand with …

Hyperbole

Exaggeration for effect; overstating the case in an effort to be more persuasive.

It is technically cheating, because it’s misrepresenting the truth, but it’s long been an accepted part of discourse (probably because it’s generally quite easy to see through).

“I voted Leave because our prisons are full of Polish rapists.”

“We even had Barack Obama flying in to tell us what to do.” – commenter on Guardian website

(The facts – the president of the US, on a visit to Britain, gave his personal opinion that it would be a bad idea for the UK to leave the EU – have been stretched, so that now it is suggested that Obama was ordering the UK to vote to stay, which is clearly not the case. If he’d threatened to launch ICBMs on London if we didn’t do as he said, well then, yes, that would count as telling us what to do. But my interlocutor has set up a straw man here.)

Cherry-picking

AKA half-truth.

Telling the strict truth, but deliberately minimising or omitting important key details in order to falsify the larger picture and support a false conclusion. Pretty much accepted practice, particularly in era of the attention deficit, but no less dangerous for it.

The trick can be played with pictures as well as words.

Plain truth fallacy

AKA simple truth fallacy, salience bias, executive summary.

The tendency to favour familiar, or easily comprehensible examples and evidence over that which is more complex and unfamiliar.

“This country’s been going to the dogs ever since we joined the EU. It’s high time we got out.” – commenter on Guardian website

 Appeal to authority

Generally speaking, we would be well advised to heed the opinions of experts, because they know whereof they speak (certainly better than the man in the street). However, when they are talking about something that’s not in their area of expertise, or if their opinion is very much in the minority in their field, we should take their pronouncements with a pinch of salt.

“It must be true. I read it in the Mail.”

Getting a celebrity endorsement – like asking Beyonce and Jay-Z to appear at your rally – is a form of appeal to authority.

Just plain folks

The opposite of the above. The supposition that someone’s opinions are more valid because he is a “plain talker” who “says what’s on his mind”. Usually comes with a free side-dish of ad hominems designed to ridicule or demonise anyone with a heart or a brain: “boffins”, “bureaucrats”, “tree-huggers”, “coddled liberal elite”.

“I’m voting Trump because he tells it like it is.”

Argumentum ad populum

AKA appeal to popularity, bandwagon effect.

“A million customers can’t be wrong!” The assertion that your view must be right because the majority of people share it. But remember, we’re all numpties. The popularity of an idea has no bearing whatsoever on its validity.

There are 1.6 billion Muslims and 2.2 billion Christians in this world, and they sure as hell can’t all be right.

False dichotomy

AKA false dilemma; false binary; logical fallacy of the excluded middle.

Believing (or stating) that there are only two opposed approaches or answers, when in fact a range of solutions are possible. Probably the most common example of this is “You’re either with us or against us”, when it’s obvious that you can agree with some of a person’s views and not others. We don’t live in a black-and-white world; the true answer (assuming there is one) usually lies somewhere in the grey.

“You’re either for freedom of speech or you’re not.” – Paul Joseph Watson

Hopefully, even a fool can see that it is perfectly possible to take an intermediate stance. You could approve of freedom of speech under certain conditions, for example, or with certain exceptions (the position that most legal systems in the developed world take).

Personally, I’m for freedom, except where it impinges on others’ freedoms. There’s no contradiction there; it is, however, an ever so slightly complex idea, at least, one that’s evidently too complex for Watson’s followers to grasp.

“Black lives matter.”
“No, blue lives matter.”

Again, there’s no reason to make this an either/or affair. It should be obvious that all lives matter (although there may be certain times when it is appropriate to highlight the fact that one particular group is at disproportionate risk).

Argument to middle ground

In a way, the opposite of the above. We generally think in a linear, binary way. Someone makes a claim, someone else makes a counterclaim, and ultimately, if we are lucky, they agree on a compromise. The Greek terms for this are thesis (proposition), antithesis (negation) and synthesis (reconciliation of the two). Here’s a example: thesis: “Drugs are bad.” Antithesis: “No, drugs are great.” Synthesis: “Some drugs are good and some are bad”/”Drugs are not too harmful in moderation.”

But it doesn’t always work this way. Sometimes the thesis is rubbish, sometimes the antithesis is rubbish, sometimes one or the other is indisputably correct, and sometimes they’re both way off, so the answer does not always lie somewhere in the middle. Replace “drugs” with “cigarettes” in the above example and you’ll see what I mean (PS: I’m a smoker).

This faulty logic can have pernicious consequences for debate. When the BBC has a discussion panel on man-made climate change, for example, they’ll generally invite one or two people who are proponents of the idea, and one or two who are rabidly opposed, in the name of “balance”. But if they were to truly reflect the weight of opinion in the scientific community (and the evidence), they would invite 99 climate change believers and one sceptic.

Equally, populating Question Time with one person from the far left, two from the centre and one from the far right is not necessarily a fair representation of the political makeup of the country.

Non-sequitur

Latin for “does not follow”.

Developing an argument by suggesting that one thing automatically follows from another when it clearly does not; implying causality where there is none.

“Donald Trump has been a very successful businessman, so he’d make an excellent president.”

Slippery slope fallacy

Claiming that if X happens, then Y will automatically follow, when there is no evidence to suggest this is true.

“If we let any more Muslims in, the next thing you know, we’ll all be obeying sharia law.”

Moving the goalposts

Asking for a certain degree of proof or evidence, and then, when this is offered, demanding more.

“The EU was going to let Turkey join.”
“They could never have done that as long as the UK exercised its veto.”
“But … they banned our bendy bananas.”
“No they didn’t. They simply proposed a new classification under which straighter bananas were given a higher rating.”
[Half-hour pause while they go on Google]
“But they banned powerful hoovers.”

Shifting the burden of proof

Claiming that the onus is on your opponent to disprove your point, rather than on you to prove it. Your point does not become right simply because someone cannot explain why you are wrong.

“If you visit the Real News Network, you’ll find Clinton was the higher risk of WW3, especially with her support of the dopey Syria No-Fly Zone idea.”
“I’m afraid deranged far-right websites that peddle fake news and conspiracy theories are some way down my list of reputable sources.”
“Instead of mocking my source, how about demonstrating, using logical fact based arguments, why I’m wrong?”

False analogy

The assumption that because two things are similar in one respect, they are similar in others.

“The EU is failing and breaking up, just like the USSR did. In fact, it’s just like the USSR.” – commenter on Independent website

“Humans are tribal animals living in cultural groups. That is what makes us human.”
“We were. Some of us aspire, via education and tolerance and openness, to a better future.”
“A ‘better future’? History is full of ideological madness ending up in bloodshed. Think of the Great Leap Forward!”

“Remember when the right rioted after Obama got in? Me neither.” – Paul Joseph Watson

[Obama was not elected on a platform of hate, he was not openly racist or misogynistic, and he did not threaten to revoke the hard-won rights of millions of American citizens. Also, the numbers of people actually rioting were inflated, as we’ll see below.]

(Tweet posted after Lily Allen went to a Calais refugee camp and apologised to one of the children there on behalf of the UK. The two points aren’t remotely comparable. The UK government could see exactly what was going on in Calais and could have acted to help much sooner. No one in authority knew about the paedophile ring in Rotherham until it was exposed, so no one could have done anything.)

 Reductio ad Hitlerum

The observance of Godwin’s Law; namely, the likening of one’s opponent to Adolf Hitler, or Nazis in general. Liberals (and Remain voters) are often guilty of this. It’s usually hyperbolic and unwarranted, but sometimes, the comparison is apt.

Tone policing

Attempting to dismiss an argument based on the manner in which it is delivered rather than its content. Whether I am screaming, laughing or crying while making a statement has no bearing on its truthfulness.

“More sneering and condescension. Exactly what we’ve come to expect from liberals.”

“Stop whining. You lost!”

 Terror management theory

The exploitation of threat hypersensitivity, which I covered in my last post.

“We have to do something!”

AKA security theatre.

A relatively new fallacy, which maintains that when people are scared, angry or fed up, it is necessary to do something, anything, immediately, regardless of whether it will actually work.

“I’m voting for change!”

Argumentum ad baculum

Latin for “argument from the stick”.

The fallacy of “persuasion” or “proving one is right” by force, or threats of violence. More of a sign of desperation than a logical fallacy, but used increasingly often.

“Give me your address and we’ll see who’s right.” – (Twitter user, to me)

Generalisation

Here we encounter the problem I mention above: the human tendency to generalise is a cognitive bias and a logical fallacy. They’re two sides of the same coin, feeding on and reinforcing each other. I thought I’d cover this under both rubrics because it is, in my opinion, the single greatest cause of misunderstanding.

“The mainstream media tries to portray these ‘refugees’ as a peaceful and freedom-loving people, but that’s just not the case at all.” – Supreme Patriot website

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard people say things like “God, Italy’s awful”, based on one subpar holiday, or “I refuse to shop at Tesco since that checkout girl pulled a face at me”. The reverse is almost as common: “Everything David Bowie does is genius”, “Portuguese people are so lovely!” We’re constantly trying to extrapolate from the specific to the universal, and it often leads us to false, and sometimes dangerous, conclusions.

“You voted Leave, so you must be racist.”

(Yes, many who voted leave voiced concerns about immigration, and concerns about immigration often go hand in hand with racism. But one simply does not follow from the other.)

The problem of intent

There’s a fuzzy logic to the order of this list.

I’m going to don my optimist’s hat and speculate that most of the time, when people make logical blunders, they’re doing so in ignorance; they’re simply not aware that they’re obfuscating or mangling the truth. But there’s no doubt that some people commit them deliberately. They know full well what they are saying is wrong, but they say it anyway, because they have an agenda – usually the acquisition of power, or money, or influence. They are using logical fallacies to exploit other people’s cognitive biases, in order to achieve their own ends.

So I’ve listed the fallacies in a sort of “order of innocence”; the further they occur down the page, the more likely it is that they deployed with malicious intent. From hereon in, in the main, we’re no longer talking about Leave or Remain voters, but the campaigners. We’re not dealing with Clinton or Trump fans; we’re dealing with the media, the politicians and their advocates. This is the point where stupidity starts to shade into lies.

The red herring

Responding to a question by changing the subject; a form of non sequitur. I guess point blank refusing  to answer the question would fall under this heading as well.

The romantic rebel

AKA truthout fallacy, brave heretic, iconoclastic fallacy.

The fallacy of claiming validity for your standpoint based solely on the premise that you are heroically standing up to the prevailing orthodoxy, or speaking up for the people, or “sticking it to the Man”. The principal modus operandi of the alt-right. Although they’ll probably have to ditch it now that their views are becoming orthodoxy.

Ad hominem

AKA poisoning the well.

If you can’t win the argument, go for the man. The argumentum ad hominem takes two main forms: first, attacking your opponent’s character (the guilt by association fallacy) – “Why should I listen to Tony Blair’s opinions on the EU? He invaded Iraq” – and second, an attempt to discredit their argument by pointing out their previous failings on this subject: “People in this country have had enough of experts.”

Just because someone was wrong once – even if it was on the topic at hand – it doesn’t mean they’re wrong this time, and it certainly doesn’t mean they’re wrong all the time. Experts are experts for a reason.

Michael Jackson may not have been your first choice of babysitter, but that doesn’t mean his music wasn’t great. If we were to apply this reasoning rigorously, the only person who would ever be allowed to judge or challenge anyone would be Jesus Christ himself. Oh, except for that time he overturned the moneylenders’ tables.

“Why should I listen to a leftie moron like you?”

“Liar, liar, pants on fire, Gary Lineker pushes junk food for a living, and then tries to take high road on migrants” – Jon Gaunt

(Someone just called “House” in fallacy bingo. That’s a hyperbole, an appeal to emotion, an ad hominem, a non sequitur and a false equivalence in one tweet, along with a bonus malapropism. But please don’t look this guy up – he’s a professional hatemonger only doing it for the attention.)

Tu quoque

Latin for “you also”. AKA appeal to hypocrisy.

“You, sir, are drunk.”
“And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.” (Winston Churchill to Bessie Braddock – possibly)

Ducking the question by flipping the accusation around on the accuser; a particularly poisonous blend of red herring and ad hominem, but one that often succeeds in taking the heat off the accused by forcing the accuser on to the defensive.

“Take a look. You look at her. Look at her words. You tell me what you think. I don’t think so.” – Donald Trump, on one of the women who accused him of sexual assault

“LGBT GARBAGE IS JEWISH BY NATURE. Feminism is Jewish mind poison and almost all feminist icons are Jewish criminals.”
“Fuck off back under your rock, you fascist prick.”
“Not very tolerant for a liberal, are we?”

(There’s clearly quite a big difference between intolerance of different skin colours and cultures and intolerance of hate. NB this is also an instance of false equivalence.)

“I’m sorry, but a lot of people who voted to leave the EU are racist.”
“No, it’s the EU, with its protectionist policies, that is really racist.”

(I think the reasoning here is supposed to be something like this: the EU is a trading bloc of neighbouring states. Those states, which all have majority white populations, are discriminating against all countries who are not part of the bloc, and some of them have majority black populations. Of course, the logical conclusion of this argument is that if you ever talk to, give a gift to, make a deal with, promote or do anything nice to a white person, you’re a racist.)

“The Leave campaign was full of lies.”
“But Remain lied too.”

(I’d argue that while the Leave campaign was riddled with blatant falsehoods [Turkey, the £350m, bendy bananas, EU accounts not signed off for years], the Remainers were guilty of, at worst, empty threats [austerity budget] and inaccurate predictions [immediate recession].)

“Trump is a serial sexual assaulter, a liar, a sexist, a cheat, a quadruple bankrupt … etc”
“But Hillary sent confidential emails through a private server.”

TINA (There is no alternative)

Margaret Thatcher’s catchphrase, which she used to railroad through her pet policies. An attempt to stifle debate by asserting, falsely, that we have no choice but to follow the present course of action. Often accompanied by the argumentum ad baculum.

“Instead of sulking, Remain voters should accept the result” – Daniel Hannan MEP

“Get over it”/”Suck it up”/“You lost.”

Equivocation

Premeditated ambiguity; a deliberate failure to define your terms, or the deliberate use of words that have multiple senses in an effort to mislead.

People seem to be especially susceptible to semantic tricks. Using military euphemisms such as “friendly fire” and “collateral damage” makes the events seem less awful than if you said “We killed our allies” or “We killed civilians”.

Take a tweet by Paul Joseph Watson. Under the message “Anyone who talks about the system being rigged is nuts” – a sarcastic reference to Trump’s suggestion that the US election might have been manipulated – Watson quotes two tweets from senator Elizabeth Warren:

1) “Washington is rigged for the big guys.”

2) “It’s not rigged, @DonaldTrump. You’re losing fair and square.”

Superficially, that looks like a clever observation. But think about it for a second and it falls apart, because the word “rigged” is being used in two distinct senses and contexts. Warren’s first tweet was about the general imbalance of power and lack of social mobility in America. The second refers to Trump’s suggestion that the election (or at least the media coverage) was rigged, against him, which is clearly a different proposition. Watson is comparing apples and oranges.

The straw man

A common fallacy, and one routinely deployed by politicians, especially Boris Johnson (probably picked it up at the Oxford Union debating society). Basically, it’s an attempt to discredit your opponent’s position by restating it in a weakened, exaggerated or distorted way. The name derives from an analogy: instead of attacking the real man, you’re standing up a “straw man” and attacking that instead. The reductio ad absurdum is a form of straw man.

“Self-loathing Brits alert!”
“Or, perhaps, xenophobia-loathing Brits alert?”
“Do you have evidence to suggest 17 million people wanting control of their own country are xenophobic?”

(These were comments under a Guardian article about an anti-racism protest. At no point did I suggest that all 17 million Leave voters were xenophobic.)

“Can we be so sure peace and stability on our continent are assured?” – David Cameron
“I don’t think leaving the EU is going to cause world war three” – Boris Johnson

Snow job

Attempting to “prove” your point by overwhelming your audience with mountains of marginally relevant facts, documents and statistics that look impressive when taken together, but don’t hold up under any sort of scrutiny. Basically, you’re counting on your reader or listener not to bother to check any of your facts or sources, which these days seems to be a fairly safe assumption.

Some of the more deranged fascist websites, the day before the US presidential election, ran a story linking Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and his brother, Tony, with … wait for it … the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in Portugal in 2007.

BREAKING BOMBSHELL : Multiple Reports Tie Clinton’s Podesta Brothers to Child Abduction Case of Madeline McCann

Alarm bells should sound immediately: this “story” falls squarely into the realms of what you might call “too bad to be true”. It’s just so horrific and so damaging – surely we’d have heard something about it before?

It only takes a quick glance at the evidence to prove your gut instinct right. Exhibit A is a photo of the Podesta brothers next to two photofits issued by British police in 2013 in connection with the McCann case; B, an email purportedly proving that John Podesta went to Portugal; C, testimony from businessman and former Navy SEAL Erik Prince.

A) Put aside for a moment the questionable resemblance. If you read the original Guardian article from which the photofits were taken, the police e-fits were different portraits of the same man, not two different men. B) If you actually read the email, it was not John Podesta, but Mae, his daughter, who travelled to Portugal … in 2014. C) A quick check on Prince reveals him to be a serial fantasist whose main claim to fame is that his private security firm Blackwater was responsible for the killing of 20 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.

This particular snow job melts pretty quickly.

Banners from fake news websites
Oh. *Now* I believe you.

Argumentum ad veritatem

AKA the appeal to the truth; “protesting too much”.

This isn’t a recognised fallacy so much as an observation of my own. In the same way that virtually every sentence that begins “Fact is” generally goes on to offer either opinion, speculation, or bug-eyed fantasy, I’ve noticed that any website that screams “TRUTH!” or “INFORMATION!” at you can reliably be dismissed as a purveyor of unadulterated bullshit.

The more strenuously someone insists that they are telling the truth, the more seriously you should scrutinise their claims.

 Now we come to the ultimate fallacy.

Making shit up

Sometimes, when you want to win an argument, it’s not enough to tinker with the truth, to use misleading words and diversionary tactics and unfairly malign your opponent. Sometimes, you just gotta lie through your teeth.

And lies – from tendentious fibs to full-on fabrications – seem to be the weapon of choice in today’s internet information wars. (Although the Mail and Express have been at it for years.)

Some are fairly easy to see through, such as this “news story” from 2014 about dastardly Muslims demanding that the US army alter its dress code to include, er, turbans (which Sikhs wear).

Others are less easy to dismantle. Take this story about an FBI agent involved in the leak of emails from Clinton’s private server being found dead in an apparent murder-suicide. (There’s no such news organisation as the Denver Guardian, and no evidence that the events described ever happened.)

The doctoring, or repurposing, of pictures and video have now become routine. Several memes doing the rounds that claim to show Democrat protesters in scenes of carnage were in fact taken during the London riots of 2011. This photo and this photo are just two examples of the many fakes doing the rounds; this video, of a man purportedly being beaten up “for voting Trump”, in fact shows an attack after a road rage incident, and this one, of a woman supposedly taking a dump on a Donald Trump placard, actually shows a piece of (disgusting) performance art in Mexico City in July 2012.

I won’t bang on again about the smorgasbord of lies the Leave campaigns cooked up to get their way, but … you know. They lied. A lot.

Then there was this horseshit about Clinton and John Podesta eating babies at satanic rituals, somehow conjured from a single email from a Serbian artist inviting Podesta to a dinner party in 2015. Say what you like about these alt-right types: they certainly don’t lack in imagination.

Fake news is on the rise because it’s working – even some of the more outrageous alt-right confabulations are getting shares in six figures on Facebook – and it’s working because it’s tailor-made to prey on people’s cognitive biases: their fears, their prejudices, their ignorance.

What should you take away from this? I dunno, really; I just want people to have as many tools as possible at their disposal to help them make some sense out of the hurricane of information out there.

But I will say this: next time you’re tempted to share a news story on Facebook or Twitter, stop. Consider the source. Do they have an agenda? Use your critical faculties. Does it seem too good (or bad) to be true? Is it consistent with other, proven stories you’ve read about? Have they committed any obvious logical fallacies?

Keep an open mind. Doubt first, check second, accept third. There are some dangerous bastards out there who think you are stupid.

Prove them wrong.

Stupidity and lies: the new standard for online debate?

Hominids

Israel/Palestine. Russia/Ukraine. Brexit. Trump. The quality of online debate has arguably never been lower. Is it time for a reminder of the basics of rational thought?

Hominids
“Of course we knew the £350m was a lie!”

“How fortunate for leaders that men do not think.” – Adolf Hitler

(I’ve got way too much for one post, so part one will deal with “stupidity”, part two with “lies”.)

Humans have been arguing for as long as they could speak. You’d think, given 200,000-odd years of practice – plus all the intervening research into rhetoric, logic and psychology – that we’d have it down to a fine art by now. And yet the vast majority of online debate these days seem to consist of little more than “You lost, suck it up”, “Moron”, “Liar”, and “Fuck you”. What happened?

Some social explanations have been put forward: the phenomenon of deindividuation – when we deal with anonymous avatars rather than real people, we don’t accord them the same respect – and the creation of ever more disparate echo chambers, or bubbles, of people who agree with us, leaving us less able to understand those who don’t.

Part of the problem, I think, is that most people aren’t remotely trained in critical thinking. Half the time, when people think or speak or write – and I include myself in this – they don’t know that they’re committing basic errors of reasoning. So I thought I’d put together a little list of some of the more common ones (and in my next post, some of the rhetorical cheats people use to exploit them), so that you can avoid tripping up when you’re debating – and politely point out when your opponent does.

I’m with stupid

Are Leave voters the dumb ones, or Remain? Do Clinton fans need educating, or do Trumpettes? Who’s the bigger fool: the liberal, or the alt-right fascist?

The uncomfortable fact is, we’re all idiots. Your brain, thanks to your evolutionary past, is prone to all sorts of errors and biases. The model of the world in your head is not an accurate representation of the world in front of you.

Sure, humans can be amazing. We’ve been to the moon, we’ve cured smallpox, we’ve figured out the structure of DNA and made computers that fit on a fingernail. But we also text while driving. We hook up with our exes, we pump industrial waste into lakes, and we laugh at Mrs Brown’s Boys. Even Einstein mislaid his keys.

This is because there’s a lot of information coming at us, 24/7. And our brains, while capacious, can’t take it all in – they need to winnow, to precis, to prioritise, often instantaneously. And while we generally think of ourselves as rational beings, all too often, our thought processes are derailed by inbuilt prejudices; emotion, wording, status, looks.

Full disclosure: I’m not the world’s leading authority on this subject. I’ve picked up most of this from reading books and websites (although after 25 years of subediting, I’d like to think my critical thinking skills aren’t a complete disgrace). What’s more, there’s still a lot of disagreement even among the experts about terminology and classification, not least because these areas straddle the separate domains of psychology and logic, and as a result, some of my definitions may be a little fuzzy. But the basic principles are solid enough, and should be of some use to anyone looking to improve the standard of their online discourse.

For a more in-depth, comprehensive and authoritative list of cognitive biases, you could do worse than check out this site.

And please try not to be put off by the big Latin words. I didn’t coin them!

Dunning-Kruger effect

AKA illusory superiority.

Time and time again, studies have shown that most people consider themselves more intelligent than average. Most people also consider themselves better drivers than average, better-looking than average, and nicer than average. Which can’t, obviously, be the case, because statistically speaking, only half of us can make that claim.

Why is this so? Because human self-esteem is a fragile thing. In order to drag ourselves through the daily grind, we have to convince ourselves that we’re in with a shot of happiness, of success, that we can hold our own. Consequently, we think of ourselves as being at least competent at everything. (Those who suffer from depression, though, often report feeling the opposite.)

But there’s a more alarming twist. When you start learning a discipline, you quickly come to realise exactly how much there is that you do not know. Someone who has never studied that discipline, on the other hand, does not have that insight. Instead they tend to assume that their passing acquaintance with the subject, combined with their natural, above-average intellect, qualifies them to have an opinion. In short, amateurs are often more likely to believe that their opinions on a subject are valid than experts are.

“People have had enough of experts.” – Michael Gove

Third-person effect

You believe your opinions are based on experience and evidence and fact, and that people with opposing views are gullible and susceptible to propaganda. In reality, you are probably just as susceptible as they are.

Confirmation bias

Related to: cognitive dissonance

Again, it’s all about self-esteem. People like to build up an image of ourselves – an identity – that is strong and above all consistent. As a result, we tend to seek out information and people and things that support our existing beliefs, rather than sources that contradict or threaten it. This is why Arsenal supporters rarely subscribe to MUTV, and why ardent admirers of Taylor Swift are more likely to follow other Swifties on Twitter than Katy Perry fans.

If we do this for long enough, we create echo chambers around ourselves, filled with people and things that reinforce our world-view. So when we are eventually confronted with evidence or opinions that threaten it, we react with intolerance, or even hostility.

“Hello, I’m a rabid xenophobe. Do you have any copies of the Daily Express?”

“There’s nothing you can say that will interest me, you fucking libtard.” [liberal retard]

Backfire effect

The tendency to harden your stance when you come up against evidence that contradicts your position. Widely observed among Remain and Leave voters since the referendum – rather than seeking compromise or to better understand opposing views, many people have “doubled down” and entrenched their positions.

Self-serving bias

On a similar note, most people, when something good happens, tend to believe that it’s a quality within themselves, or within their “ingroup” (people they share an identity with), that was responsible. Any failures, meanwhile, will generally be blamed on outside forces. So if you pass an exam, you’ll probably come away thinking, “Wow, I deserve that because I worked really hard for it”, but if you fail, you might think, “Stupid teacher totally failed to prepare me for that.”

“Wow, Team GB did so well at the Olympics. Isn’t Britain amazing?”

“The NHS is falling apart, and it’s all the fault of those bloody immigrants.”

Choice supportive bias

AKA defensiveness, special pleading.

Sometimes, when you have to make a decision, it’s a bit of a coin-toss. You genuinely don’t know if you will have a better time at the local club or at the bowling alley. So you choose the bowling alley … and it turns out to be a disaster. Brian breaks his wrist and Trish loses her phone. But when someone has the temerity to criticise your choice, you leap to its defence, citing all sorts of reasons in favour of the decision – reasons that you didn’t even think of when you made it. This bias, which again boils down to self-esteem, tends to be more pronounced in older people.

“I voted Leave because I thought the Remain campaign’s predictions of economic problems were just fearmongering.”
“But sterling has tanked and investment is down and food prices are rising.”
“Everyone knows that sterling was hugely overvalued, and anyway, it’ll be great for our exports!”

Cult indoctrination

When you read about cults in the papers, you probably think, “How could any of these people be so weak-minded as to fall for that crap?” But the unfortunate reality is that most people, given impoverished circumstances, some catchy slogans, a big enough crowd and a sufficiently charismatic figurehead, are more than capable of being coopted into a religious or quasi-religious sect. Our innate desire to belong to a group is very strong, rooted in millions of years of tribal culture, as is our propensity to kowtow to authority figures. This often leads us to overlook flaws in authority figures, to fail to question them, and to follow their bidding without question.

“Oh my God, like – like – Gee, I can’t – Paul, Paul Joseph Watson, you are like, like – everything to me, I just …”

“Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!”

Projection illusion

AKA false consensus bias.

While everyone likes to think they’re a bit special, few of us want to be seen as a freak. On the whole, people crave acceptance; we want to fit in, to be liked and understood. So we seem to have an inbuilt predilection for believing that everyone else – at least, everyone else in our little cabal – thinks the way we do. In the absence of any clear signals, we project our own wishes, desires, interests, concerns, ethics and moral code on to others.

If you’ve never taken sugar in your tea, you’ll probably raise an eyebrow when you meet someone who asks for two. And if you’ve grown up in an omnivorous household, your first invitation to a vegetarian dinner party is likely to come as a shock.

“You have no idea why most people who voted to leave did so. Most people voted over the immigration issue” – garyhumble, Guardian website

“Immigration was not the top issue for Leave voters, however much Remainers *want* it to have been” – Daniel Hannan MEP (tweet, now deleted, but still in Google cache)

Good Old DaysNostalgia fallacy

AKA Pollyanna principle, golden age fallacy, positivity bias.

“Thiiiiings … ain’t what they uuuused to be …” It’s been the lament of every older generation since the dawn of time. And yet history shows that broadly speaking, the quality of life has consistently improved for most people the world over. The standard of living in western countries, at least, has followed an almost uninterrupted curve upwards for 2,000 years; life expectancy has improved, rates of crime have fallen, wars and disease and famine have become less common, and technology has made our lives easier. Whence this disparity?

It turns out, it’s because when recalling past events, people have an innate tendency to remember positive experiences and suppress the negative ones. You’ll often hear older people waxing lyrical about the sense of community and the trees and fields and the games of cribbage round the fireplace, while conveniently glossing over the freezing outdoor toilet and the regular beatings from Dad and the cousin who died of polio.

“I know from the days before the common market that we did OK, we did fantastic, and we can go back to that” – May Robson, Sunderland resident

[In the early 1970s, prior to signing up to the EEC, the UK was known as the “Sick Man of Europe”. Its beaches and skies were polluted, wages were depressed, inflation was high, and industry was in decline. During the first 42 years of its membership of the EU, UK GDP grew by almost 250%, outperforming most major world economies.]

Threat hypersensitivity

We’re all going to die. We try not to dwell on it too much, but our fear of mortality informs our every moment. We go to great lengths, consciously or otherwise, to avoid things that might endanger our lives. Some people find religion useful in submerging this fear; some throw their energies into raising a family; others base their hopes for pseudo-immortality on historical fame, or works of art or engineering.

It turns out that even mentions of death can markedly affect our behaviour. When people are reminded of their mortality (say, by a news story about a terrorist attack), they tend to defend their world-view, and people who share that world-view, more strongly. According to terror management theory, reminding people of their mortality tends to shift people’s politics to the right.

“We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African-Americans, Hispanics are living in hell because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot.” – Donald Trump

“It’s a total disaster, on top of which you have migration which is destroying Europe,” he said at an event in September. “Germany is a disaster now. France is a disaster.” – Donald Trump

“Fix our broken mental health system. All of the tragic mass murders that occurred in the past several years have something in common – there were red flags that were ignored.” – Donald Trump’s campaign website

Correlation v causation

This encapsulates a range of logical snafus, but I’ll confine myself to a couple of examples.

Humans have a habit of drawing conclusions from limited information. Say a football player happens to wear red underpants for a particular match, and his team wins handsomely. Then, in the next match, when he wears his blue strides, they lose. He might conclude, since victory coincided with red-pant-wearing and defeat with blue, that the red pants are responsible, and thus decide to wear the red pants for every match. He’d be a fucking bellend if he did, but this is a mistake people make all the time.

For a more complex example, consider the deadly Mr Whippy. It’s a proven fact that every time ice-cream sales rise in an area, the local murder rate rises too. Could this really mean that Magnums turn people into killers? Well, no, it’s more likely the fact that in warmer weather, people buy more ice-creams – and they also stay out later, drink more, and interact more with other people.

“This country’s been going to the dogs ever since we joined the EU. It’s high time we got out.”

Availability heuristic

AKA attention bias, anchoring bias; closely linked to the above.

If you see (or hear about) a particular event, you are more likely to think it is far more prevalent than is actually the case. The classic example of this is fear of flying: many people refuse to get in an aircraft because they are worried that it might crash, but in fact, each time you take off, your chances of carking it are only about 1 in 10 million. The reason we think air disasters are more common than they are is that when they do happen they are, understandably, given extensive coverage.

“I voted Leave because our prisons are full of Polish rapists.”

[As of March 2016, there were 965 Polish nationals in British prisons. That’s out of a total Polish population of just over 800,000 — so 0.12% of all Poles here are convicted criminals. The total number of prisoners is around 95,000; about 0.14% of the population as a whole. I can’t find any figures broken down into both ethnicity and crime. So unless Polish rapists are better at avoiding detection than British ones, or the CPS for some reason is softer on eastern European sex offenders, they’re no worse than the natives.]

Generalisation

Possibly the most insidious – and thus the most invidious – of all cognitive errors, generalisation covers a wide range of sins, including the out-group homogeneity effect, illusory correlation, attribution errors, essentialism, the representativeness fallacy and stereotyping. But they all essentially boil down to the same thing: the human mind abhors an information vacuum.

Picture yourself as the alpha male of a savannah-dwelling tribe of hominids around a million years ago. (Ooh, primal!) You’re stalking through a wooded glade with a companion when you spot a spider on his neck. He cries out and brushes the spider off. A few hours later, he’s dead. To avoid a repetition of the tragedy, you forbid the tribe from foraging anywhere where they see a spider. Sadly, this means you can no longer access any of your food sources, so you all starve and die. D’oh!

The fact is, less than 30 of the 43,000 or so species of spider (less than 0.1%) have ever caused a human death. Avoiding every spider is an irrational and costly response to the (exceptionally rare) problem of spider bites. What you’ve done here, Ogg, is generalise, or stereotype, in a most unhelpful way. You’ve (correctly) identified a link between a spider and a death, but you’ve extrapolated the qualities of one spider to all spiders, and consequently stone-tooled yourself in the foot.

Historically, this ability to derive sweeping rules from limited information would often have been useful. Water from little lake bad. Put leaf on wound good. But in the modern world, where life-or-death situations are far less frequent and it’s become almost impossible to judge a book by its cover, the knee-jerk response is rarely the right one.

“Typical Remoaner.”

“You liberals are all the same – patronising, smug and condescending.”

 Default Bias

AKA status quo bias.

Many people (Remain voters, I’m looking at you. I mean us) naturally favour a situation simply because it pertains right now; because it works, more or less, and because they fear that any significant change might jeopardise that. I’d argue that it’s a fairly justified fear when no one actually has any credible idea of what to replace the status quo with.

“If it ain’t broke …”

Nihilism

AKA “Tear it all down!”

Polar opposite of the above fallacy. A blind rejection of what exists in favour of what could be, no matter what the likely cost. A disorder particularly common among infants and psychopaths.

The sunk cost fallacy

AKA argument from inertia.

One of the more personally costly mistakes people make.

You realise, at the end of a trying first year of your university course, that you don’t like your subject. What do you do? If you switch courses, you’ve basically wasted a year of your life. But if you stick it out, you might have wasted three.

We often think, once we have set out on a certain path, that the best course of action is to see it through no matter what. “I can’t back down now,” we say. “I mustn’t lose face.” To give up now would mean admitting that we were wrong, which is harmful to our self-esteem.

Logically speaking, it’s much better to have been a bit wrong in the past than to be massively wrong in the future. It usually makes sense to quit sooner rather than later, and give yourself more time to make a success of your next plan. But no, we still watch crappy movies all the way to the end, we still stay in doomed relationships for far too long, and we persist in pursuing disastrous policies.

“Get used to it. We’re leaving.”

Coming soon: logical fallacies and dangerous, lying bastards.

68 dumb-fuck reasons for leaving the EU

Brexit illo

‘I did it to put everyone else in the shit’

Brexit illoThe UK’s vote to exit the European Union has created many uncertainties. Will the country be better off, or worse? Is the UK a xenophobic, retrogressive nation, or a brave, proud, forward-looking one? Can the Conservatives and Labour remain united in this time of turmoil? Will anyone be able to afford to go on holiday again?

The result has made one thing crystal clear: the UK is a bitterly divided nation, along lines of age, race, region, class, wealth and education. If we are going to begin to heal these divisions, it is crucial that we try to establish exactly why it is that 51.9% of those who voted decided that being outside the European Union was better than being in it. Once we have a better understanding of these grievances, we can address them and – hopefully, one day – resolve them.

To this end, I have begun compiling a list of reasons given by Leavers, gathered from Twitter, Facebook, comment threads, discussion forums and friends.

1. “Because of all the EU laws that we have no say in.”
“Name one.”
“Erm …”
“Come on, what are these laws are that you won’t have to obey any more that made you vote for this short-term economic hit? Can you name one?”
“I wouldn’t be able to, no.” (Caller to James O’Brien’s LBC radio show)

2. “As a protest vote.”

3. “Because I want it to be a close result.”

4. “It [Sunderland] already is [a giant jobcentre]. That’s why I voted Leave, to put everyone else in the shit like us.” (Twitter)

5. “To stick it to the toffs.”

6. “To give Cameron a bloody nose.” (Express website)

7. “To give Cameron a better negotiating position.”

8. “Because the EU closed the coalmines.” [The EU had nothing to do with the closing of the coalmines.]

9. “Because I thought we had been in long enough.”

10. “Because I had the hump.”

11. “Because now our lads will get out of prison, cos there will be jobs for them.”

12. “The main reason I voted out was because the EU parliament aren’t elected representatives. The second is, they pass laws that affect us, but we aren’t given a say. Third, we need to sort our own house out” (J, on Facebook, giving exactly the same – factually wrong – reason in three different ways)

13. “Because I felt uncomfortable when a group of brown people got on the bus the other day.” (Family member)

14. “Because the EU made them change Marathons to Snickers.” [That was Mars’s decision, not the EU’s.]

15. “Because they banned our bendy bananas.” (Express website) [The EU introduced a law stipulating that bananas should be given different classifications depending on their curvature. No fruit was ever banned – it was just a different classification system.]

16. “Because fishermen now won’t have to throw fish back in the water and Muslim women will no longer be told by their husbands not to wear make-up” (Caller to LBC)

17. “Because I’ve lived here all my life, and when I was growing up, that street over there was filled with shops.” (TV documentary)

18. “To stop the Muslims immigrating here.” [Migration is unrestricted within the EU. But individual nations are responsible for setting their own limits on immigration from non-EU countries, such as those where the majority of citizens are Muslims. Leaving the EU will have no effect on the number of Muslims coming to the UK.]

19. “Because I want our old lightbulbs back!” [The EU has placed restrictions on the sale of old-style incandescent lightbulbs in a bid to reduce energy wastage and slow global warming.]

20. “Because vaccines should not be mandatory.” [The EU has never passed any law making vaccination mandatory, even though vaccination is widely regarded as being a pretty good idea. Some European countries have done so of their own volition.]

21. “Because the Queen said.” (Pro-Brexit Facebook group)

22. “Because we should not be signing up to TTIP.” [TTIP is a trade deal between EU and America, which the EU has just put on hold. After the UK leaves the EU, most commentators believe it will sign up to a similar deal with the US, probably with fewer checks and balances.]

23. “Because we are like Germany, and Germany isn’t in the EU.” [Germany was a founding member of the EU.]

24. “Because the country is full.”

25. “To annoy my wife.”

26. “It will be an adventure!”

27. “Because the value of the euro is going to go down.” [Even if it were true, this would not have a marked effect on the UK’s economy. Since the vote, sterling is down 18% against the dollar and 15% against the euro.]

28. “So that I can get cheap photovoltaic panels from China.”

29. “Because otherwise, 7 million Turks will come over here.” (LBC caller) [Turkey would never have been able to join the EU so long as Britain used its veto.]

30. “Because I am fed up with being ruled by unelected bureaucrats.” [The EU parliament is directly elected in regular European elections. The European commission –basically the civil service – recruits its own members.]

Screenshot of online conversation
The people have spoken.

31. “Because I didn’t want my sons to have to join a European army.” [The EU would never have formed an army so long as Britain exercised its veto. Even if it did, conscription would be a political and practical impossibility.]

32. “Because there’s too many Pakistan people in Glasgow.” [I repeat: EU membership has no bearing on immigration from outside the EU.]

33. “Because it takes more than 5 litres of water to flush my shit away.”

34. “Because EU taxes are making our petrol more expensive than everywhere else in Europe.” [No, those would be taxes imposed by the UK’s government. The EU plays no part in setting national tax rates.]

35. “To send them women in the headscarves back home. One of them stole my mother’s purse.”

36. “Because I don’t like what the EU is doing to Africa.”

37. “Because I’m scared of black people. They’re so physical.” (mother-in-law of member of Facebook group) [The mechanism by which leaving the EU will rid the UK of black people is unclear.]

38. “I don’t want to send money to Greece. I don’t care about Greece.”

39. “Because the EU does nothing for us.” [Estimates of the value of EU membership to the UK vary from £31bn to £92bn per year.]

40. “Because the EU has devoted 26,911 words to the regulation of cabbages.” [Seems quite a minor thing to sacrifice 20% of your pay packet for, but in any case, it’s bollocks. There are at present zero words in EU legislation specifically governing the production or sale of cabbages.]

41. “Because our prisons are full of Polish rapists.” [As of March 2016, there were 965 Polish nationals in British prisons. That’s out of a total Polish population of just over 800,000 — so 0.12% of all Poles here are convicted criminals. The total number of prisoners is around 95,000; about 0.14% of the population as a whole. I can’t find any figures broken down into both ethnicity and crime.]

42. “Because the roads in Oxfordshire are full of potholes.” [Technically, such matters fall within the local council’s purview.]

43. “Because the EU is anti-semitic.”

44. “So that we can go back to the way Britain was in the 50s.”

45. “Because they sold off the water, gas and electricity.” [Once again, that would be the work of the UK government, not the EU.]

46. “Because I couldn’t decide, and my boyfriend voted Remain.”

47. “Because schools are no longer allowed to hold nativity plays in case they offend Moslems.”

48. “Because the EU spent £13m on art last year.”

49. “Because they never vote for us in Eurovision.”

50. “Because if we stop all the immigrants using the NHS, it will work properly again.”

51. “So we don’t have to queue at the doctor’s.” [There is no clear consensus on the impact of immigration on the health service. Undoubtedly, more people in a country means more people to treat. But it is widely agreed that migrants to the UK are on average younger and healthier than the local population, that inward migration is good for the economy, which gives us more money to spend on the NHS, and that without migrant workers – 24% of doctors and 12% of nurses were not born in the UK – the health service would collapse. Besides, the ageing resident population is by far the biggest strain on health services.]

52. “Because I want a more powerful hoover.” (via Facebook group)

53. “Because the EU is going to ban toasters, and I love toast.” (BBC interviewee) [The EU has never threatened to ban toasters. It is, however, considering a limit on the amount of energy that household appliances can use, in a bid to reduce the effect on the environment.]

54. “So we can have our electrical sockets low down by the skirting rather than have to put them little higher up the wall.”

55. “Because they are building houses for Filipinos and it’s blocking the view from my kitchen window.”

56. “Because I don’t understand politics. This is what my friends suggested.”

57. “Because there’s too much traffic in Sittingbourne.”

58.”Because they tell me I need scaffolding to clean my guttering.” [Really not sure where this information came from.]

59. “Because I fancied a change.” (Caller to Radio 4 programme)

60. “My uncle voted Leave because his sister told him to.”

61. “Because the European Parliament building is the same shape as the Tower of Babel, which is anti-Christ.” (Facebook group’s family member)

62. “So all the fucking Chinks will leave.” [China is not in the EU.]

63. “Because the ensuing recession is going to bring house prices down, and I can’t afford to buy a house.”

64. “Because I want to buy sweets in ounces, not grammes.”

65. “Because they don’t pay for NHS prescriptions in Wales and Scotland, and that’s not fair.” (Manchester woman) [Again, nothing to do with the EU.]

66. “So that I don’t have to pay the bedroom tax.” [The bedroom tax was imposed not by the EU, but by … oh, can’t you fucking guess by now?]

67. “Because I’m fed up of the French burning our lamb.” (Frank, Twitter)

68. “Because I want to use my teabag twice and the EU won’t let me.” (Aunt of friend of commenter) [Another falsehood peddled by Boris Johnson]

Thanks for contributing and helping to turn a sad list into a truly depressing one. I’m turning comments off here now because I’m getting spammed to death, but you can still add your gems to the version on Medium if you like.