You have to draw the line somewhere (part 2)

(Part 1 of this post looked at how we try and fail to deal with continua conceptually)

I spent around 30 years of my life as a practising lawyer, and the law is perhaps the area of human endeavour where black and white thinking is most evident. It’s obviously so in criminal law, but almost equally so in civil law. We need certainty; is this person guilty or not guilty (only in Scotland, as far as I know, is the middle not excluded, with their third verdict of “not proven”). Is this money owed or not owed? Has this person broken the terms of a contract or not? Should this person be ordered to do (or not to do) something or not?

It is not always easy to choose, particularly where the facts are somewhat unclear, as evidenced by the number of cases in which juries are unable to agree. This difficulty led to the UK government abandoning the old need to have 12 jurors all agree on a guilty verdict, and introducing the majority verdict. These days, you can have two dissenters in a jury of 12, one in a jury of 10. It also led to the abandonment of jury trials altogether in almost all civil cases in the UK (which is a move not followed in the States).

Even when unanimity was required, juries not infrequently got things wrong.

There was also the issue of needing to make a decision when, frankly, you didn’t know if there was a heap or not, in cases decided by judges only, or where the judge issued a strong direction to the jury. Inventive lawyers (including judges) would twist the wording of existing cases a little in order to avoid a result which was patently wrong, and that twist became a part of the law, to be followed, under the system of precedent, by future courts. Those courts, in turn, would feel they needed to twist a little more in some case, and the result was often a very unnatural interpretation of language. The legal maxim there is “hard cases make bad law”.

There are a couple of well-known quotations of Jesus which play on this X / not-X dichotomy; Matthew 12:30 and Luke 9:50; in the first, whoever is not with us is against us, in the second whoever is not against us is with us. The middle is excluded – but, of course, if you take the two quotations together, it is paradoxically allocated in both directions. Rather than ask whether scripture contradicts itself here, I suggest this should be read as paradoxical and pointing at the fundamental inadequacy of human language, which depends on such oppositions. It also depends on us creating the arbitrary dividing lines in continua, (in this case the disposition of others towards us, which may be anywhere between near-identity of objectives, and total enmity), which characterise the discussions about “heaps” and about turquoise. The truth of things is that there are often not such arbitrary dividing lines, despite what our language forces us to say.

Nowhere is this more seen, these days, than in politics. Oh, and in religion – in the Islamic world, the fundamentalists consider any slight deviation from their hardline interpretations of the Hadith to put people “beyond the pale”, including a large percentage of other Muslims, in Christianity, we are regularly seeing people condemned as outside the faith by the Evangelical “gatekeepers” (for instance Rob Bell for suggesting that “love wins” and espousing universal salvation, and a list of academics fired or persuaded to resign from religiously conservative seminaries and universities because their views had developed in a direction which was thought not to adhere exactly to the Westminster Confession or even stricter standards). But then, religion IS political since the Constantinian revolution.

In politics proper, however, we have in the last two years seen two events in opposite sides of the Atlantic which have produced horribly polarised, black and white divisions. In the UK, the issue was Brexit.

In the lead-up to the referendum, I talked with a lot of people about their likely vote. While my long term friends group and my facebook friends were nearly unanimous in rejecting a vote for Brexit, the area I live in voted over 60% for Brexit, and a lot of less close acquaintances were going to vote to leave the EU. There were members of both camps who thought there was only one correct answer, but quite a number on both sides were, on the one hand, dissatisfied with many aspects of the EU, and on the other, willing to accept that the EU has brought many advantages to us. Those in these groups were making a decision because they had to, but where the issue was not so clear cut for them.

I myself voted to remain in the EU; although I don’t like the current lack of direct democratic control in the institution (in which more power is with the appointed Commission and with the Council of Ministers appointed by the various national governments), I don’t like the slavish following of neoliberal economic policies by the European Central Bank (and, to be honest, by most of the hierarchy) and I am unhappy about the subsidy structures, which operate in favour of continental small farmers (including, in Germany, a lot of hobby farmers), the sheer likely economic pain of losing our single unified market of over 500 million people (the UK market is about 11% of that size, and well over half our trade is with other EU countries) weighed very heavily on my thinking (and although Brexiteers claimed that we would be far more prosperous if we left, all studies which have come out since the vote indicate that we will be 5-10% poorer overall), I really favour one of the original founding principles of the EU, which was to ensure by binding countries together that we did not repeat the two world wars of the 20th century, both of which were primarily European wars, and I tend to think that the only way of standing up to global multinationals (some of whom could buy and sell the UK, and we may not be alone there) is to have a more global rather than a less global government.

Many of those I talked to who were voting for Brexit were doing so on the basis that we would be more prosperous (or, at least, not massively less prosperous) if we left, or because we “needed to take back our democracy”, although the EU is democratic, albeit a flawed democracy, and almost all of the European legislation that people cited as intruding on our sovereignty would need to remain unchanged if we were to have anything remotely approaching free trade with Europe. These were just two of the arguments for leaving which I found wholly unconvincing – indeed, only two people I spoke to had what seemed like thoroughly rational reasons. The first thinks that Europe is going to fall apart in the near future due to its internal political differences – and he may be right, but I’d rather wait until it’s clear that is going to be the case.

The other said “I want to see the world burn”. Yes, if that’s what you want, voting for something incredibly damaging might well do the job – although, really, it was a protest vote (as were many other people’s); it was a way of showing that they were dissatisfied with the way the government was functioning. And they never expected to win…

Since the vote, however, I have heard a constant chorus from not only the longstanding Brexiteers that “the people have spoken, we are leaving the EU” irrespective of what terms this can be achieved on. “If we have to crash out with no trade agreements at all with Europe or the rest of the world, that is the will of the people, and it must be followed”, they say – and that includes a raft of MPs, mainly Conservative but some Labour, who originally campaigned to Remain. It is, of course, the case that there was a very small majority among those who voted, and there was no majority if all voters were to be counted – and, in the case of something which demands a major constitutional change, I really feel that there should have been a supermajority. However, that was not the basis on which the referendum was couched (though neither was the fact that it would be considered binding on parliament…)

Institutions and companies are now relocating to continental Europe and the negotiations to secure some form of new trade deal cannot possibly be concluded by the “leave date”, as many pointed out would happen (and we haven’t even left yet). However, if those of us who are now seeing our fears realised, dare to suggest that the facts of the matter are now much clearer than they were when we voted, and it would be only reasonable to ask the electorate to review their decision based on these new facts, we are berated as “Remoaners”, asked to “get behind the programme” and “make Brexit a success”. To that last one I tend to reply that it was their damn idea, and they should be able to do that without my help – indeed, they should have thought about the “how” first  – as for me, I do not believe that Brexit is capable of being made a success.

See how the creep of ideas has gone – from an on-balance decision, hoping for a decent trade deal (and preferably the kind of trade arrangement Norway has with the EU, which several prominent Brexiteers suggested would be likely), which on my responses most Brexit supporters expected, it is now “If we have to crash out of well over 50% of our national markets, what of it? The people have spoken.”

In the USA, of course, the similar issue is the election of Donald Trump to be president. This was another election which, I think, few expected to go the way it did, at least until the very last minute. I am much less knowledgeable about US politics than about those of the UK, and have to admit that I know only two or three people who voted for Trump, so my sampling is not nearly as good.

In that case, however, it didn’t take until after the election for the sides to become fairly polarised; at an early stage some I spoke to were saying they would hold their nose as they voted, but would vote for Trump (because Hilary Clinton “is corrupt”, something I personally find difficult to accept given the level of scrutiny she has been subjected to for decades now), or would hold their nose as they voted, but vote for Clinton, because – well – Trump!

In the early days of his candidacy, few I knew took him seriously; even those I knew who went on to vote for him thought him lacking in any experience with a deeply unpleasant personality and habits, and no real clarity about what he stood for, given his conflicting positions on so many things, but once he was the candidate, things changed.

There was of course during the primaries, a third possibility in the form of Bernie Sanders (a candidate with policies much more along the lines I favour), and a fair amount of my US friends group were Sanders supporters. In much the same way as lines were drawn and positions hardened after the Brexit vote, quite a few of those utterly refused to contemplate voting Clinton after the primary result, some even to the extent of voting Trump – ABC, anything but Clinton! Their position, with which I have much sympathy, was that Clinton was thoroughly in the pocket of big money, and was therefore going to give us “more of the same”, and change was absolutely needed – but to vote for big money directly in the form of Trump? (Actually, to vote for any Republican, given their track record of complicity with big money, astonishes me from anyone with even slightly liberal views). There was some comment that the Republican machine would operate reasonably irrespective of the personal characteristics of the president, or his competence, or his financial ties to foreign states. I perhaps had some hope that that might be the case for, oh, a couple of days after the election result…

But again, there are a couple of “ABC” voters I know who take the “I want to see the world burn” position. Just as with Brexit, I can respect their position, while wishing fervently that we could somehow prevent the conflagration.

As with Brexit, however, since the result became known, I hear choruses of “well, he’s the president, and we should now support him and give him respect” – very much along the lines of “the voters have spoken”. Again, finding out that he is not going to “clean the swamp”, fight Wall Street or, indeed, do anything for middle and lower class voters, and seems to have little clue as to what a president is actually supposed to do, is not producing the “new facts, need to re-evaluate” response. People are just yelling “anything but Clinton” more loudly…

“He who is not with us is against us” rules, to the exclusion of “He who is not against us is of our part”.

Except when you’re claiming a majority, of course…

I suppose, going back to my initial musings, it’s a form of “excluded middle” fallacy – except we’re almost all somewhere in the middle (at least until we are forced to take sides), and so the system eventually manages to exclude all of us.

Perhaps the Taoists have the right idea – everything is black or white in their famous “yin and yang” symbol, making a concession to our need to find boundaries, but the two parts are always inextricably linked, and there is a little point of white in the black, a little point of black in the white.

(Part 3 of this post will look at a specific and very controversial example of black and white thinking in religion, politics and law).

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