Ever heard this one? “Not all Brexit voters are racists, but all racists are Brexit voters.”
It’s a particularly stupid, particularly pernicious phrase which never really grabbed my attention until someone asked me it as a question in an interview recently. Prior to that, I was aware of the phrase in the same way as you might be aware of a toddler throwing a tantrum, without really wanting to acknowledge and tacitly reward the behaviour. It’s a classic tantrum-phrase, because it beautifully calls millions of people racists without actually calling any individual person racist – it merely suggests that all those 17.4 million people are either racist, or ideologically associated with racists.
When I was asked about it in an interview, I dealt with it calmly enough, pointing out the obvious counterexamples: that there clearly exists racism amongst Remainers, and that in any event Brexit is the only means of having a completely even-handed immigration policy.
Later, I had second thoughts: why wasn’t I seriously annoyed by that proposition? Have we become so used to casual, whimsical, evidence-lacking allegations of racism that we start to believe that it’s okay to do that?
What if we did the same in any other context? Would “All Stalinist mass-murdering dictators are Left-wing (but not all left-wingers are actually mass murderers)” be appropriate in polite company, or would it actually be utterly offensive? I think it’d be offensive; that’s why basic decency wouldn’t allow me to do it – though it would be considerably harder to find a counterexample with that quote than with the Brexit one.
How about “Not all Labour supporters are anti-Semites, but all anti-Semites support Labour”? That would be…well, a lie. Just like the Brexit one. Is it worse to lie about racism or anti-Semitism? Trick question; they’re both as bad as each other.
Remember the story of the politician whose notes in the margin read “Argument here woolly and confused. Shout loudly and bang the lectern”? When someone is lying, they’ll often express their point forcefully in the hope you’re so distracted by their personality that you don’t even notice. The Brexit-racism phrase is the grammatical equivalent, and should be treated as such.
The formulation of it becomes even nastier the more you pause to think about it:
- Even if it were true, it would be no more a coherent argument against Brexit than to blame the Labour Party for millions of deaths in Soviet gulags. They’re two completely different things, which shouldn’t be associated with each other.
And yet, despite me taking great pains to point out they’re totally separate and disassociated with each other, your mind inevitably turns to the thought. With the Brexit phrase, on the other hand, nobody does you the courtesy of pointing out that the phrase is actually a complete load of codswallop aimed at suckering the gullible. See how pernicious it is?
- It flies so in the face of political history that it borders on historical revisionism. Whose policy was “Europe A Nation”? Who really pursued that vision of a United States of Europe, for want of a better word? Was it a known Europhile movement of the establishment centre-left? No – it was, in fact, Oswald Moseley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. The logic suggesting that racists are a subset of Brexiteers, whilst the origins of British fascism were euro-federalist, is naive at best – and (fittingly) Goebbels-like propaganda at worst.
- It creates a false impression of even-handedness. ‘I’m not making this particular claim (that all Brexiteers are racist), but a subtler one (that all racists are Brexiteers). ‘Oh, I’m not saying that you personally are a racist for supporting Brexit, please don’t take it like that, that’s not what I mean. I just mean the rest of them.’ Patronising, condescending and above all arrogant to the point of nausea.
- Adding to the faux-magnanimity, there’s a faux appeal to authority: at the most casual reading, it sounds like it’s a simple statement. It sounds more like a proverb (It is better to have half a proverb than…) or other truism, except that it lacks the most basic component of a truism. It’s certainly an ‘ism’ of some kind; I’ll leave it to the reader to figure out which one.
Maybe next time we hear that phrase, rather than a mere clinical dissection of its nonsensical nature, we should be angered by it. There is such a thing as righteous anger after all; railing against a real injustice rather than some of the perceived or imagined ones we’re often browbeaten, in Quixotic style, into fighting.