Brexit and cultural dislocation

Image: @wgaronsmith (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence)

Brexit involves many dislocations: economic, political and (for those most directly affected, such as EU27 citizens living in the UK) personal.

Underlying all these, though – and a fundamental factor in why Brexit is happening in the first place – is the cultural dislocation that Brexit involves. That’s true whether the dislocation dismays or delights you.

This was called to mind when I read the following quotation today. It’s from Anthony G. Amsterdam and Jerome Bruner’s book, Minding the Law, but I came across it as the epigraph to Walter Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament:

All cultures are, inherently, negotiated compromises between the already established and the imaginatively possible. … cultures in their very nature are marked by contests for control over conceptions of reality. In any culture, there are both canonical versions of how things really are and should be and countervailing visions about what is alternatively possible. What is alternatively possible comprises both what seems desirable or beguiling, and what seems disastrous and horrifying. The statutes and conventions and authorities and orthodoxies of a culture are always in a dialectical relationship with contrarian myths, dissenting fictions, and (most important of all) the restless powers of the human imagination. Canonicity and the ordinary are typically in conflict with imaginable “otherwises”—some inchoate and even private, some vocal or even clamorous, some quasi-institutionalized as cults or movements of dissent. The dialectic between the canonical and the imagined is not only inherent in human culture, but gives culture its dynamism and, in some unfathomable way, its unpredictability—its freedom.

The idea that “cultures in their very nature are marked by contests for control over conceptions of reality” is of particular interest at a time when “post-truth politics” – politics where the “contesting” of “conceptions of reality” extends even to the denial of basic, verifiable facts – has been so widely discussed.

What jumped out at me, though, was the reference to every culture having “both canonical versions of how things really are and should be and countervailing visions about what is alternatively possible.”

A point that numerous commentators have made about Brexit is how, until the referendum campaign began, opinion polls had rarely shown a majority of voters wishing to leave the European Union. However unpopular the EU may have been for many people, our political culture’s “canonical version of how things are and should be” was firmly one of continuing EU membership. The “countervailing versions about what is alternatively possible” promulgated by Tory eurosceptics and Ukip seemed doomed to remain nothing more than “contrarian myths” and “dissenting fictions” in the face of the “[literal] statutes and conventions and authorities and orthodoxies” of life as an EU member state.

What has happened since 23 June 2016 is a process – and still only the beginning of the process – of reversing the position of these “conceptions of reality”. As a previously “reluctant Remainer” prime minister intones that “Brexit means Brexit”, Brexit becomes the new “canonical version of how things are and should be.” Meanwhile, support for EU membership barely even manages to register as a “countervailing vision about what is alternatively possible.”

The point is that this represents a massive cultural shift, quite apart from the political and economic impact as Brexit unfolds over the coming years. Both Brexiters and “Remoaners” find ourselves with a new and unaccustomed cultural status, a reversal of our previous positions. Others (such as members of parliament) find themselves scrambling to endorse positions they would previously have disdained.

The result is undoubtedly a manifestation of cultural “dynamism”: it remains to be seen, though, whether events will vindicate those for whom the new orthodoxy is “desirable or beguiling,” or those of us who find it “disastrous and horrifying.”


Sufficient unto the day: Brexit and emotional health

Sermon On The Mountwith the Healing of the Leper Cosimo Rosselli, 1481
Sermon on the Mount with the Healing of the Leper, Cosimo Rosselli, 1481

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’

Matthew 6:25-34

It’s probably a measure of how sheltered and privileged a life I’ve led that it’s taken the Brexit vote to really bring home to me the value of what Jesus is saying in these famous words – particularly the final sentences, rendered in the Authorised Version as:

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Is this really good advice? Can Jesus really be telling us not to buy insurance (as some Christians apply this) or not to save for a pension? After all, “take no thought for the morrow.”

I don’t interpret Jesus’ words that way, but that’s an argument for another day. However, I think at least a part of what Jesus is telling us here is about maintaining healthy patterns and habits of thought. I know I’m not the only one who has spent more time than is healthy in the last few days reading and arguing about the implications of Brexit and the likely consequences and outcomes. And one of the things that has become apparent to me is how easily my thoughts run away with themselves, as I go chasing off down some line of thought about all the dire possibilities of one or other of all the vast complexity of issues now to be addressed as we prepare to leave the European Union, and end up anxious, jittery, scared.

Who knows how all these matters will be resolved, but it’s probably unlikely that all the worst case scenarios my fertile imagination can come up with will come true. In the meantime, these are not healthy patterns of thought.

I dare say that in the days and weeks ahead there will be reports on the impact of the Brexit vote on people’s mental and emotional health. The shock and uncertainty and confusion is likely to be having a highly detrimental effect on some people, especially those who already suffer from mental health problems. But perhaps there is a specific danger for those of us, lacking experience (so far) of mental illness, who don’t realise the mental and emotional risks of obsessive concern over matters in which we feel powerless and confused.

So it’s at this point, as our mental terriers go chasing another Brexit rabbit down another rabbit hole, that we need to listen to Jesus’ words here: “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Worrying about tomorrow weakens our mental and emotional resilience to deal with what we have to do today – let alone the effects it has on our trust in God.

Yesterday I ended up having to turn off my phone and tablet during the afternoon to recover my emotional balance. In the evening I listened to classic disco music, processed holiday photos and started reading Three Men in a Boat (which I’ve never read, and which I discover – who knew? – is utterly hilarious). Whatever you need for your own #OperationHappyPlace, if you are distressed and anxious about the Brexit result, I commend a similar approach. Yes, engage with the news of what’s happening, but keep a watchful eye on your emotional state and your patterns of thought, and make sure you switch off and do something else when you need to (bearing in mind that, if you feel thirsty, that means you’re already dehydrated). Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.