Language of the Heard: the Impotence of Liberal Protest

“This is a very, very, important point to make…” Rafael Behr

Last Sunday, Guardian columnist Rafael Behr went on the BBC’s Politics Live and outlined just what was wrong with the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. The clip was widely shared on social media, with many applauding Behr for breaking down the ‘essential state of English politics’. Armando Iannucci, arguably one of Britain’s greatest modern satirists, likened it to the Gettysburg address.

Clearly, Behr had spoken a great and terrible truth. The kind of truth that would echo through the annals of history with the sheer force of its right-ness, waking the slumbering masses to the folly of Brexit, the foolishness of their politicians, and to the simple, irrefutable fact that this madness must be stopped.

But had he? Watching the clip again, I was struck, not by the power of Behr’s words but rather their predictability. Behr advanced nothing new, but rather a series of statements so often articulated they barely need repeating: people promised the impossible, people voted for the impossible, politicians are now stuck trying to do the impossible.

Bet they’re happy they never had to negotiate Brexit, eh?

Bet they’re happy they never had to negotiate Brexit, eh?

Behr’s words, however passionately delivered, were neither persuasive nor conciliatory. They certainly didn’t call for any kind of purposeful action. So why were they treated with so much significance, to the extent that otherwise sober commentators could compare them to a speech that declared a new birth of human liberty, the end of American slavery and a cessation of a fraternal conflict that cost over half a million lives?  

‘45 of the funniest signs from the Anti-Brexit march’ - boredpanda.  Source.

‘45 of the funniest signs from the Anti-Brexit march’ - boredpanda. Source.

Brexit was a trauma for bourgeois liberalism. Much like the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the vote to leave the EU was impossible to imagine and, once it happened, continued to be so. Every effort was made to prove the vote’s illegitimacy, from Russian interference to Labour lethargy, and a considerable amount of time and money was (and continues to be) spent on forcing a second vote – regardless of the odds. Liberals want their suffering to end. But they are refusing therapy.

All they can do is protest. But it is a strange, empty kind of protest. The liberal argument for stopping Brexit is about as inspiring as that of the Remain campaign’s original (and only) pitch: the alternative is worse. But if people are already living through the worst, what exactly can you do to convince them otherwise?

Liberals in the political and media class have chosen not to engage with this criticism. They may concede to points about the erosion of industry, public life, and welfare under the existing order of market capitalism, but are unlikely to offer any solutions beyond a little tax and spend. For those still living in the end of history, it’s not the existing order that needs changing. It’s not even people’s minds. It's just Brexit.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr once described riots as ‘the language of the unheard.’ An advocate for non-violent protest, Dr King disagreed with the morality of such actions, but nonetheless endeavoured to place them within their proper context. The riot, he pointed out, is a response of the disempowered to violence – social, political, and economic. It is all a person can do to protest a system that has robbed them of any agency, dignity, and humanity.

Liberals, as far as they are represented in politics and the media, suffer no such oppression. Often white, wealthy, and English, they are insulated by privileges of race, class, and country. Brexit does not pose the same threat to them as to those they like to speak for, such as working people, migrants, and British citizens of colour. It makes sense then, that their protests should be so uninspired and ultimately ineffectual. They don’t want to challenge authority. They are the authority being challenged.  

‘This picture perfectly sums up what Brexit could mean.’ - Metro, June 26, 2016.  Source.

‘This picture perfectly sums up what Brexit could mean.’ - Metro, June 26, 2016. Source.

So you get speeches like that of Rafael Behr. The kind of speech that gets widely shared and then completely forgotten about. From tortured analogies, injury gifs, lengthy Twitter screeds or the ever-so-twee placards you might see at a People’s Vote march, Brexit is a recurring topic that both animates and pacifies. ‘We now go live to Brexit’ a post might read, showing a man hilariously tripping in the street and falling into a bin. People like it, share it, maybe even get a bit angry for a minute or two, and then move on.

If these people are serious about stopping Brexit, it is going to take more than indignance and shit jokes. It will mean accepting that liberal politics has not survived liberal economics. It will mean making a positive, reformist case for the European Union. It will mean, ironically enough, taking their own advice and reaching across the aisle. It will mean winning the argument, and winning the other side over. Otherwise, liberal protest will remain a language of the heard – saying nothing new and doing even less.