I’ve been thinking a lot about perspective. I often wonder how different my perspective is from people on the streets. As a gay, black, Latino, cisgendered, American male, is it possible for me to understand the lived reality of another? As a global citizen, I would like to think so. In truth, it’s difficult. At best, I can play with the notion of being white, or female, or wealthy. Living abroad taught me the value of listening and patience: two key elements of empathy. It helped me understand perspective is truly biased by experience, making it harder to truly consider how another might feel. It makes for some interesting thought exercises.
Lately, my thoughts around perspective have been all consuming. I find it difficult not to think about perspective when confronted with the unmistakable presence of modern horrors in our world–horrors that, to an extent, are the unintended consequences of globalization and associated migration. We see these repercussions in the aftermath of the Arab Spring as well as in the political vacuum that created ISIS, but we also find them in the protests against the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the rush towards fiscal austerity in an attempt to appease the almighty market rather than the individuals reeling from physical economic loss. Put another way: In our rush to harvest the fruits of globalization, we have failed to show empathy (or sympathy) to those unprepared for the rapidly changing world and we now must wrestle with the unintended consequences of our actions.
But what does perspective have to do with Brexit?
Everything. At least, I think so.
Many thorough pieces have been written about Brexit, most focusing on a narrative around difference, selfishness, ignorance, or some other concept that felt incomplete to me. I hope to offer a different narrative.
From what I can gather, Brexit was less about the EU and more the visible expression of a milieu of despondency, anger, and dissolution. It seems there’s something similar feeding the Donald Trump candidacy in the United States as well as the intensification of hyper nationalism throughout the European mainland.
I spoke with a British colleague about Brexit and I walked away believing that with all the talk of the joys of technology and modernity (as I write this over multiple connected devices), we are not addressing the millions who do not, cannot, and will not have the skill set needed to be competitive in a global market. And yet that is the very population that is most likely to be negatively impacted by the natural flow of migration that drives the global economy, another unintended consequence.
When we open our trade to other nations, we are able to acquire diverse goods for the domestic population, but this inherently threatens corresponding domestic industry. It seems that we have either underestimated the number of individuals who will be displaced by globalization, or we don’t care (and I use “we” in the global sense). This means that globalization will most impact workers whose goods can be undersold on the market (either due to differing labor standards or local cost of living) and workers who can be replaced by someone (often an immigrant) willing to work for a lower wage. Perhaps this explains why most domestic jobs in the new economy are going to a college-educated workforce: jobs requiring little nuance can be done by a machine or in a country with lower labor standards (it could also be the unintended consequence of pushing college education on higher and higher percentages of the population and the subsequent rise of the “junk degree”, but that’s another blog post altogether!).
So, in a sense, Brexit is what happens when governments forget (or choose not) to prepare for the unintended or undesirable consequences of global progress. Life gets easier for the privileged present, and for the future many, but not so much for those who made choices without knowing how rapidly life would change. The polls in the UK showed that working-class voters supported Brexit while college-educated voters supported remaining in the EU. Young voters likely supported staying because the globalized world is all they’ve known. Older voters seemed to have been influenced by a sense of national sovereignty and fear of the assumed cultural erosion that would be brought on by a large influx of “others” through migration. Most importantly, Brexit supporters voted to leave the EU as an expression of bereavement, having felt that years of cries had gone unheard in a time when no one valued taking out their earbuds long enough to listen.
For these reasons, I think Brexit is about perspective more than it is an issue with actual migration or cultural differences. It’s about legislators and bureaucrats (and millennials) needing to remember that not everyone has the privilege of seeing beyond their idiosyncratic reality (how can globalization be good when all you see is decline?). Not everyone has the privilege of seeing enough of the world to be able to understand their place in it. Had the EU listened to the average European’s concerns with the unintended consequences of open borders, there might have been a healthier immigration process rather than resentment sweeping across Western Europe. Had the UK’s government done more to support abandoned workers’ transitions to more stable industries, there might have been more support for staying in the EU.
But, hindsight (despite its own biases) often clarifies