Can you live with not being right?

Last week slightly more than half of voters elected to leave the EU and slightly less than half elected to stay in.

We also know of course how the in/out split varied across the country. And ancillary polls and population statistics purport to tell us which demographic groups probably contributed most to the Leave and Remain totals.

But we don’t know why each of the 33 and a half million or so voters marked their ballot as they did.

In part because we don’t know and because the choice was binary, but also because of the ongoing emotional fallout from the result, commentary in the aftermath has largely continued as it did in the campaign: a bracketing of Leavers and Remainers into two broad tribal groups, each viewed with varying degrees of distaste by the other.

Leavers are described as old, right-wing, racist, xenophobic, narrow-minded, bigoted, selfish, insular, disadvantaged, unintelligent, uneducated, duped, deceitful, deceived, economically illiterate, angry.

Leavers consider Remainers to be bankers, the elite, the ignorant young, privileged, anti-democratic, subsidy loving, luvvies, lefties, Londoners, naïve, unadventurous, experts, lacking vision, scaremongering, lazy, change-fearing.

The mix of terms varies from one commentator to another, but none is used as a compliment: they are used to justify labelling those on the other side as “WRONG”. There’s not much sign of anyone seeing the other side’s point of view!

Tribalism can be comforting, especially when we feel vulnerable, or indeed when we want to feel strong and superior. But to persist in demonising half of our fellow citizens is hardly conducive to a cohesive society. And it is also plainly ridiculous.

The EU referendum wasn’t a test of fact; had it been we could have used a sophisticated computer algorithm and avoided all the hassle. The referendum was a test of opinion and different people with different perspectives can hold a different opinion on the same facts.

Opinions are not conclusive, they are judgments; we might agree or disagree with them, but they are neither objectively right or wrong.

And this is the truth of politics that too many ignore: politics is not about facts, it is about opinions built on belief.

Facts live in the past, where they are invulnerable to change. Politics is about making decisions that impact the future, a future which is mutable – but stubbornly resistant to accurate prediction, and entirely devoid of facts.

In politics, theory, belief and opinion are all we have. There are no absolute truths to which we can lay claim.

After last week we need to move on. We could start by remembering that others have valid opinions; by making the effort to engage with and understand them; by aiming to discuss and persuade rather than tell, and by resisting the lazy option of simply labelling others as wrong.

We can still disagree, but let’s look beyond tribal stereotypes and not assume we already know what we disagree about!

And, whichever way you voted: you weren’t right – or wrong. Can you live with that? We all need to.

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