Wednesday 12 August 2020

Seeing oursels as ithers see us

Confirmation bias is something from which most of us suffer to a greater or lesser extent. It means that we see and interpret things from the viewpoint of our own priors. The bigger problem that arises is not the bias in itself but the unrecognised assumption that the underlying viewpoints aren’t always necessarily shared by others. When coupled with an exceptionalist belief system like that of English nationalists, it can make people utterly blind to the very possibility of an alternative point of view.
The PM said this week that he is determined to preserve what he called ‘the magic’ of the UK, a ‘magic’ which makes England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland disappear in the eyes of foreigners, who see only the huge successes of ‘Britain’ when they look at these shores. The first problem with that is that, even if it were true, that which he sees as an advantage is precisely part of the problem from an alternative standpoint. For those English nationalists for whom England and Britain are largely synonymous, making the non-English parts of the UK invisible is a feature of success. But using that line of argument in Scotland where Scottish invisibility is seen as a vice rather than a virtue is entirely counter-productive to the cause which Johnson claims to espouse; it’s an approach which completely fails to understand the situation on the ground. Reducing Scotland to a ‘brand’ of the UK is more likely to inflame than persuade.
The second – and bigger – problem is that it isn’t even true. Yes, of course, there are many people abroad who don’t understand the more-than-subtle differences between Great Britain, the UK, and England. There can be few Welsh people who have been abroad who haven’t struggled to explain that Wales may be part of both Great Britain and the UK but it is not part of England (although in my own experience the awareness of Scotland is significantly higher); on that Johnson is broadly right. But I suspect that most Welsh people – even many of those resolutely opposed to independence – would add the word ‘sadly’ to that sentence; one does not have to be an independentista to desire a degree of recognition of the distinction between England and Wales. The ‘invisibility’ touted by Johnson is not only not desired by many but it isn’t as absolute as he claims.
His broader comments about how foreigners see, admire and envy ‘Britain’ manage to progress from wishful thinking to the utterly absurd. There is zero recognition of the fact that most countries in the world are standing by in amazement watching a country which used to have a certain reputation for probity and common sense descend into chaos as it commits an act of great self-harm by exiting the EU, let alone the sadness that a country once regarded as a reliable partner is now degenerating into a country whose word cannot be trusted and which eschews co-operation in favour of making unrealistic demands. As part of his comments, the PM said, “I think what people in this country often don’t appreciate is the way in which the UK is seen abroad”. If the phrase ‘the people in this country’ had been replaced by ‘I and my government’, he might have come dangerously close to the truth. But his own confirmation bias would never allow him to understand that.

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