A Referendum – A lesson in how to end up in conflict

What lessons for anger management and general calmness could the referendum on the European union membership hold for us?

If David Cameron had known the impact that calling a referendum on our membership of the European union would have on his party, society in general and certain individuals would he still have called it? I am guessing not.

I imagine he had a flawed vision of a party and a society that could engage with a highly emotive subject and a huge decision in an intellectual way without making the discussion/argument personal. He was mistaken.

Let’s have look at the main reasons why this has become so personal and so toxic.

Opinions and facts are not being separated

In the film Inside Out (which I recommend every adult should watch) there is a beautiful throwaway line in the middle of the drama as the main character inside a child’s head knocks over two boxes one of which contains opinions and the other facts. She exclaims as she tries to sort them out “Oh no these facts and opinions look so similar!” and the character with her replies “Oh don’t worry it happens all the time!”

This is exactly what has been happening in this debate. Opinions have been portrayed as facts. Instead of people listening to the opinions saying “well that’s just an opinion”  we have been getting entrenched in the debate and thrown in a few more of our own opinions.

The key issue here is that us normal average humans can deal with facts. They are implacable, unmovable and force us to confront reality. When we are dealing with facts most of us are generally quite calm.

Opinions, on the other hand,  have a different kind of power altogether.We get way too attached to them and when others are expressing them we have an almost uncontrollable urge to prove them wrong if we disagree.

The value of a fact really does not change. It is a fact.

Opinions, however, have an ever changing and often escalating value which is directly proportionate to the level of challenge we are under. In other words the more you disagree with me the more attached I become to my opinion and before long I have repeated it so much that in my mind it is now more powerful than a fact.

Of course, if you cannot see how powerful my opinion is and instead, choose to simply disagree with it then, I take that very personally and we are in conflict. Deeply personal conflict.

What does this teach us?

The more we acknowledge and understand the difference between fact and opinion and the more we separate the two the more aware we become and the less likely we are to end up in deeply personal conflict

Our judgements and criticisms present us from understanding others

This is linked to the opinions piece above but has deeper connotations.

A judgement or criticism of someone is an opinion. It is normally a far more personal opinion about another person and by its nature it is not generous or kind in fact they are the opposite. We do not criticise to be kind. As a result, immediately we are in conflict and it’s personal.

There is another deeper level to this that makes our criticisms and judgments of others so personal and painful. This is revealed to us by CG Jung in his work about the Shadow side of our personality. The parts of us that we hide, deny and repress.

In short our judgements of others and the things we criticise them for reveal to us the part of ourselves that we are less comfortable with. The parts of our personality that we are not comfortable expressing. Observing these parts of us in others is a deeply uncomfortable experience.As humans we are not good at dealing with emotional discomfort and the easiest way to get rid of that discomfort is to project it or throw it at someone else by way of criticising and judging them.

So, someone who is behaving in a way that we would criticise or judge them for is just someone being themselves. The unfortunate effect is that it reminds us of who we desperately do not wish to be and this leads us to conflict.

“Why are they allowed to behave like that when I do  not let myself behave like that??”

This most complex of internal reactions is why when we are judging others we are only a small step away from hatred. Most of us manage to stay on the right side of this line but in this debate the line is becoming blurred.

Media find it difficult to go anywhere other than the lowest common denominator

In terms of the way we consume news and appreciate the world we continue to allow the media to portray everyone in the most cynical and base fashion. Because of this we encourage them to play to our desire to look down on and feel superior to others. While we continue to encourage and accept this and use social media in the same way then we will continue to distance ourselves from others and make conflict the norm rather than the exception.

Could this debate have been conducted in a better way? Of Course. Are we capable of doing this….maybe, but at this moment I am not so sure.

We are the ones responsible for our opinions,  our opinion of others and the way we express them. Maybe if we start to raise the standards then maybe our politicians will do so too.


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