It helps explain why many Trump supporters saw Hillary Clinton as the devil incarnate. It helps explain how Brexiteers brushed aside the experts’ arguments as mere fearmongering. It is the bubble. No, not the little social haven perched atop the cliffs of St Andrews, but the narrative of ideological echo chambers surrounding every conceivable political position that lets in memes that support an argument but no facts that might undermine it. In these little oases of narrow-mindedness, arguments that were previously considered rational and evidence-based no longer have the force they used to. They’re now considered biased and ignorant of how real people actually feel about an issue. That, however, is the key word: “feel.”
People don’t live in a world of abstractions and far-off scenarios. The most fundamental bases for our beliefs are our lived experiences as human beings living in a cruel world. Ideologically-slanted sources play to our existing biases and help turn them into deeply-held beliefs. This is why the Leave campaign was able to label the ostensibly fact-based Remain campaign as “Project Fear.” It is quite frankly plain to see that the Remain campaign overemphasised the negatives of leaving rather than the positives of EU membership. In a world in which macroeconomic theories seem far-removed from daily life, it was easy for many Britons to instead focus on access to NHS services and the dearth of good jobs, no matter the fantastical nature of many of the promises made by the Leave campaign. What if the messaging instead concerned continentals who migrated to the UK and contributed to society at large as neighbours, as doctors at the local hospital, as bakers on the village high street, as people deserving of respect and camaraderie? Remain could have spoken up about how being in the EU with Ireland has aided in calming the situation in Northern Ireland and make the younger generation move past the division of years gone by. Remain could have spoken up about how EU funding has helped deprived parts of the country withstand the doldrums of an ever-changing global economy; a small business in Essex staying open, a local clinic in Camarthenshire still taking patients, and a fisherman in Cornwall having a market for his catch. In all these cases, communicating these sorts of ideas could’ve allowed the electorate to see the human face of the EU’s benefits. Indeed, the posters design themselves. But that wasn’t done even remotely to the extent that it should have been.
Not so in Ireland in 2015. Granted, same-sex marriage can be a more emotionally-charged issue than EU membership. Nonetheless, accusations of elite intolerance and hysteria in the case of an anti-establishment vote circulated just as in the case of Brexit, not to mention misrepresentation and satire. The referendum result in favour of same-sex marriage by a margin of nearly half-a-million in a country of 4.8 million was particularly impressive considering the country’s history as a state in thrall to the Church. Many commentators, including the comedian John Oliver, argued that the messaging of the Yes campaign recast the debate away from traditional family values and the Church in favour of expanding that hope of having a loving family to all Irish. One advert, “Bring your family with you,” makes it clear that the issue isn’t about other people living in some Brooklyn equivalent, it’s about people who live in your neighbourhoods and go to your schools. They are family and friends, just as deserving of dignity as you. They are you. It isn’t about putting forward a reasonable argument, it’s about making people feel the value of this change. Indeed, in a recently published interview, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, amid the mentions of his international fame as a gay half-Indian leading Ireland, of all places, spoke about the need to confront those who weren’t necessarily on-board with the change with the reality of his own humanity, both fellow ministers in his conservative Fine Gael government who had “talked about being generous to ‘them’” and the forthcoming breakfast with the American Vice President, Mike Pence, next St Patrick’s day. Asked about how he’d talk to a man labelled “enemy No. 1” by the American LGBT community, he answered:
“My experience of the […] referendum here was that if you want to convince people to change their minds, it’s not by shouting at them or lecturing them or attacking them personally or degrading them. That’s not how you change hearts and minds […] I’d like to hear about [Pence’s] stories… and maybe tell him a bit about my story, too.”
On issues ranging from Brexit to same-sex marriage, these ideas apply: to pierce the bubble, to actually persuade someone, pushing an argument that may seem rational to you isn’t enough. Making them feel the human benefits of a decision could be.