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Why can’t we talk about Brexit?

Credit: Jack Taylor / Getty

September 9, 2019   5 mins

I am currently in Israel, learning Hebrew. The language is strange and hard for me. It takes time and patience. I have enough of it to go to the market and ask for tomatoes and cucumbers. But, for the most part, my access to the  conversations around me is intermittent, with little snatches of understanding occasionally opening up pockets of meaning within a general world of obscurity.

While learning this new language, I listened to a TED lecture given in 2017 by the cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky. She researches the way language shapes the way we think. It’s gripping.

Boroditsky discusses the example of the Kuuk Thaayorre people, an Aboriginal community in Australia who do not have words for left and right. Instead, they orientate themselves within the world using cardinal directions – north, south, east and west. So they don’t say, for example, “you have a beetle on your left leg”, but “you have a beetle on your south west leg”.

Even the most basic form of greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is expressed as a question about which way you are going — not “how are you doing?” but “which way are you going?”. And the answer would be something like “going east”.

Boroditsky has done some intriguing experiments with the Kuuk Thaayorre, not least how they experience time. For instance, if we were to arrange a timeline of family photographs, we would tend to lay them out from left to right. Hebrew language speakers might lay them out from right to left, as that is the direction of Hebrew writing.

For the Kuuk Thaayorre, however, the direction of the timeline differs depending upon which direction they are facing. These are a people who are so attuned to their cardinal orientation that it determines the very structure of the way they experience reality. And this means they “see” things that we do not. Boroditsky asks her audience to point south-east. They point in all directions. The Kuuk Thaayorre would have no such problem. Language patterns reality because it organises the world in a totally different way.

Take a more mundane example. The other morning I was encouraging my two year old to tidy up his Lego bricks. But how to tidy them? Should they be organised according to shape or colour? Crucially, there is no right answer here. No objective answer.

One can do it a number of different ways – why not, for instance, have one box for ‘up’ colours (blue sky, yellow sun) and one for ‘down’ colours (green grass, brown earth) and another box for those colours that don’t fit. Could one even do it according to smell or taste? Seems silly, I know. But this might make sense if these senses were the primary ways that we experiences the world.

To a mind that is expecting the bricks to be brought together according to colour, the organisation of the bricks according to shape looks disorganised and messy, incoherent even. Likewise, with the other way around.

Learning Hebrew feels like an exercise in organising the world according to different categories. There is no easy read across from English because the language cuts up the world in a totally different way. English and Hebrew are primevally different. And learning a language that is this different is not just a question of the substitution of one set of sounds for another, it is much more than mere translation – it is more a question of learning to recognise a totally different set of patterns embedded within a totally different take on the world.

This ‘different take’ grows out of what Wittgenstein famously called a “form of life”, a way of being in the world that takes its bearings from a very different set of practical and geographical circumstances – how to find food and water, how to care for children, how to survive in a completely different terrain. Language is the sediment of a totally different way of experiencing the world. When Wittgenstein said “if a lion could speak we couldn’t understand him” he was trying to get at the idea that what would make the lion incomprehensible was not his words but his form of life.

Which is also why language learning, especially a non-European language, is a supremely moral activity. It is only possible when one enters into a world view, a form of life, that is totally and absolutely different from your own.

Learning a language like Hebrew is an exercise in understanding how different different can be. One might say, for instance, that Hebrew is a language that is orientated around the existence of God. God is built in to the structure of reality. One can, of course, be a Hebrew-speaking atheist – but it feels like God is always somehow priced in to the language one speaks.

The difference between Hebrew and English is not a difference between true and false, it’s more like the difference between organising Lego bricks according to colour or shape. In Hebrew, God feels more primeval, more basic, even than true or false.

Some months ago, I wrote a piece exploring Isaiah Berlin’s idea of value pluralism – that not all values can be plotted on a single scale. Some values are incommensurable. “I have for many years thought the problem of the incommensurability, and still more the incompatibility, of some values to be central to all ethical, social, political and aesthetic issues,” Berlin wrote. I agree. And I argued that this is the central problem of Brexit, of people shouting insults at each other because they fail utterly to understand the very basic moral reference points of the other.

At some point, within a democracy, we have to decide which moral position holds sway. Most of the time we can allow a degree of moral pluralism to be maintained. But some decisions are inescapably binary – do we leave or remain. And here the different world views that have rubbed up alongside each other with various degrees of toleration are brought into direct conflict.

The consequences are inevitably agonistic, hostile and often operate with mutual incomprehension. There is no way of rationally resolving the dispute between those who want to organise the bricks by colour and those who want to organise them by shape. Morally speaking, the heated non-debate over Brexit feels to me a bit like this. The House of Commons is the crucible in which this decision is made. And it is unsurprising that it is a place of high tension and invective.

But for those of us who are not tasked with the final decision over Brexit, and especially for those who seek to bring about some sort of mutual understanding between very different perspectives, the task is a bit like learning another language. The Emperor Charlemagne once said that to have another language is to have another soul. It is, as it were, to become another sort of person.

Very roughly speaking, I think the Leave people want to organise the world around the idea of “we” and the Remain people want to organise the world around the idea of “I”. There are moral arguments on both sides, but these arguments do not readily translate into the world view of the other’s perspective. And they are rooted in very different ways of living.

Those who live in traditional, rooted “thick” communities operate with a totally different set of moral and political signposts to those who operate in modern globalised thin communities. And there is much incomprehension to be had between them.

Leavers are stupid when judged by the criteria of Remainers. Remainers are traitors when judged by the criteria of Leavers. The House of Commons will decide who wins – quite rightly. But if we are to learn to live alongside each other in the months and years ahead we will probably need to develop something like a form of moral bi-lingualism. In a globalised world, where different moral cultures rub up against each other, never has empathy been so difficult or so necessary.

Charlemagne was one of the great globalising influences. Known as the “Father of Europe”, he brought together a diverse range of cultures and languages under one political regime. Little wonder, therefore, that he recognised the need to for us have a second soul.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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