It has been a while since I let politics get me riled up. At least, riled up enough to post on the blog. Because I have readers from all over the world, I don’t typically think it appropriate to offer my opinion on politics, especially because my interests and views are often relegated to one or a few areas of the globe. Besides, if you follow me on social media, you probably see enough of my rants and raves, anyway. However, as I sat watching live coverage of the UK referendum results last Friday morning, I couldn’t help but feel shock and disbelief. The UK has voted to leave the European Union. It is something I feel so strongly about that I have to write.
My first reaction was to think there was some kind of mistake. In London, Bath and Bristol- my so called “stomping grounds” here in the UK- I had come across exactly one person who told me he was voting Leave. How was it that 51.9% of the population agreed with him, and I hadn’t met any of them?
As a travel blogger and, more fundamentally, an expat, pushing myself out of my comfort zone is a daily norm. I have had to push myself to meet new people from all over the place. Mine aren’t the networks of friends from my childhood. My networks here in the UK are a hodgepodge of Brits and expats from all different backgrounds and walks of life. I mistook that for having a wide network of people who challenged me on the very foundations of my beliefs and ideals. Because, actually, we expats, or even the Brits I’ve met in these cities, all have a lot in common. For all of us, we have confronted the fear and anxiety that comes with adopting a new place as home base, whether that’s a new neighbourhood, city or country. It is impossible to stick with what, and who, we knew in our old homes, given we are all miles from them. Giving in to fear and insecurity of other, unknown people isn’t part of our vernacular; we’ve all fought long and hard to integrate by assimilating to one another. In essence, for all our differences, we’re all quite similar.
When I first moved to London at the age of 23, I was in love with Europe, and with the UK. Overall, I would tell my American family and friends how much more open minded, civically aware, progressive and well reasoned my new European and British peers were. Jaded by US politics, I sought refuge in the more stable, level headed and less ideologically rigid British political scene. Although my love affair with European liberalism (especially of the British variety) has been faltering for several years, and I now feel relatively comfortable pointing out the numerous ways in which Europe- and particularly the UK- is no different, I didn’t think it could be so widespread as in the US. Only now do I recognize that I didn’t look for evidence to the contrary. I wasn’t actually searching for alternative viewpoints, or evidence, to challenge my beliefs.
This makes the June 23 referendum even more sickening to me. As I try to be open minded and understanding of the majority of voters who decided to leave the EU, as I search for compelling arguments that I can truly believe would compel someone to vote Leave beyond the xenophobic, neo-colonial rationalisations about Britain’s place in the world that I’ve read on the news, I realize how much the result of this referendum could have been changed if I had challenged myself, and others had done the same. Instead, I buried my head in the sand. I didn’t want to see the people who voted Leave before. I didn’t look hard enough to understand they were there. I was in denial. In essence, my worldview is really not much bigger than those who stay in their hometowns their whole lives.
I’ve been in this country long enough to have been at the receiving end of anti-immigrant rhetoric. I know it exists. I just didn’t think it was so pervasive. I’ve also witnessed the extreme class divisions within British society, and understood in theory the fact that some at the bottom feel so disenfranchised that they’d rather jump into a void than continue with the status quo. I just didn’t realize so many people felt this way, in reality. As a part-time university teacher, I’ve seen first hand the atrocious state of political education young people receive. I just didn’t think the system had failed so many.
But all of that isn’t the worst part. It is part of a toxic mix baked and iced with a digital information vacuum. With so much information at our fingertips, it is so easy to seek out validation for your own opinions rather than challenge your perceptions and views. As a result, facts no longer really matter; you’ll find validation for your beliefs with a few clicks of the mouse. And because no one really has the attention span to read too deeply or carefully, complicated, complex and convoluted issues are distilled to sound bite and catchphrase. These all too often devolve into memes and quotes that eviscerate people of particular beliefs, backgrounds, ethnicities and ideologies, relegating them to no more than a rude name or disrespectful simile. The political has become all at once too personal and too stereotypical, which should really be mutually exclusive. But as a result, we have a hardening of ideology and rigidity of thought and action. Very little is challenged. (And this isn’t just relegated to Britain.)
I love the UK. It is a special place. But it is about to change. Fear, mistrust and, I believe, above all misunderstanding, has altered the trajectory of its future. But I’m no better than anyone else. I didn’t seek out people who thought differently, I didn’t challenge my beliefs, and I let myself be blindsided as a result. Actions have consequences.
The only thing I can hope is that the fallout, which isn’t looking particularly good, will make people think more critically about their beliefs, and inspire them to challenge themselves at every turn. What could that look like? Just as I seek to do, get out of your comfort zone. But, unlike I have done, really do it. You could choose to do this literally. Read more widely. Seek out alternative viewpoints on social media. Talk about your opinions with friends and family, and embrace it when they question and challenge you. Or, even more fun, IMO, get out of your comfort zone by actually getting out there, in the wider world. If you aren’t keen on moving to another country or city, travel. Going abroad is great. However, you can see whole other worlds right in your own country, or even your own city. The world is a big place, and the more you see, the more you’ll learn that things can’t be distilled or boiled down into stereotypes, two-sentence memes and simple solutions. I plan on continuing to travel, and will make an extra priority of trying to expand my networks to include more people of various backgrounds and ideologies. The same applies to my life here in the UK- time to expand. I’ll also have to search beyond my typical social media sources, journals, magazines and periodicals. I encourage you to do the same. You’ll probably feel challenged, if you do any of these things. But I’m coming around to appreciating just how much challenge equates to change. And right now, that’s just what we need.