Facts are losing out to emotion, we must return to reason

We live in a post truth Age. Facts don’t seem to matter anymore. The dangers are terrible, investors have a reason to be anxious.

Article updated: 27 September 2019 12:00pm Author: Michael Baxter

Words matter. So do metaphors. For monkeys, like you and me, and indeed the rest of humanity, emotion rides above facts.

Take the headline to this article. Originally I wrote: “Facts are losing the battle with emotion, we must ride to the rescue.” Then I realised that such a headline was using the same tactic I was about to criticise.

Of course, you could say I am using emotional language when I call humanity monkeys, because in doing that, I have strolled from the language of facts to emotion. You and I are not monkeys, we are apes. If we were monkeys we would have tails. I should have said, “for monkey cousins like you and me.”

But I wanted to drive the point home.

As a species we are ruled by emotion, we interpret facts via the filter of emotion. Our biggest failure is not to acknowledge that.

You can change minds, but facts are not the best way to achieve this.

I read this morning that the government fears that if there was a second referendum, and the vote came out in favour of remaining, there will be civil unrest on the scale of the yellow vests seen in France and the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

Yet, look elsewhere, and you read that we are seeing similarities today with the buildup to the English Civil War. It is not just Leave voters who are seething, Remainers feel just as strongly.

Words matter. The linguist George Lagoff co-author of ‘Metaphors we live by’, and more recently 'Don’t think of an elephant', says that metaphors are more than just a figure of speech, they are literal. For example, compare the word argument with debate. You and I know that an argument does not necessarily mean two people getting all hot headed. In fact, we can use the word in a more gentle way — I would like to ‘argue’ however, that if instead of the word ‘argument’ we said ‘debate’, things would be different.

Lagoff says we use metaphors for war when discussing an argument. “I demolished his argument,” “you disagree, shoot,” “He attacked my argument.”

He invites us to consider how things might be different if we used metaphors from the world of dancing.

When words like ‘surrender’, ‘take back control’, ‘saboteurs’, ‘will of the people’ and ‘parliament versus people’ are used, there is an appeal to emotion. It’s misleading, of course.

The narrative has changed, and emotive language has changed this.

If you had said, prior to Brexit, that three years later, sensible people would be drawing parallels with the English Civil War, you would have been accused of peddling project fear.

If, before the referendum you had warned that Britain was in danger of being swamped by 60 million people from Turkey, no one, to my slight puzzlement, would have accused you of practising project fear.

President Trump talked about ‘crooked Hillary’, and has hijaked the phrase ‘fake news’ a phrase I first heard in the context of statements by Trump, and has turned it against his ‘enemies.’

And by the way, it is extremely difficult to write this article without using emotive language.

You may want to point out the irony of talking about the problems caused by Brexit, when we say failure not to deliver Brexit will create social unrest on the level seen in France.

I am tempted to say Brexit is a symptom. The UK’s problems seem to be reflected worldwide, from Washington to Brasilia, Ankara to Budapest, from Manila to New Delhi.

But let’s consider Brexit for a moment, because there is an important point that gets forgotten — the narrative has changed. Pre-referendum, Vote Leave assured us that there would be no acrimony with the EU if we voted to Leave, that we would have a nice civilised chat and and common interests would mean we could trade closely with the EU, without being in it. How many people who voted Brexit were unsure how to vote at that time, but were swayed by that particular narrative? Several million I suspect. Yet how many of those people who were once so uncertain, now consider delivering Brexit, whatever the consequences, must happen, absolutely must happen.

Post EU referendum I, like most Remainers, accepted the result of the vote, and thought “oh well, as Nigel Farage said, there’s nothing that wrong with being like Norway.”

It was after the last general election — in 2017 — that the narrative changed. It was when Theresa’s May deal was rejected that the narrative changed again — I would like to suggest that this was because we knew more, the facts hadn’t changed, but they did become clearer. Brexit took on a different meaning, but by then, views had hardened. Moderate Brexiteers and moderate Remainers had become hardliners to their creed.

Politicians must move beyond emotive words, and limit themselves to discussions based on facts, otherwise politics across this planet, will make it seem like we live on the planet of the apes.


These views are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Share Centre, its officers and employees

Michael Baxter portrait photo
Michael Baxter

Economics Commentator

Michael is an economics, investment and technology writer, known for his entertaining style. He has previously been a full-time investor, founder of a technology company which was floated on the NASDAQ, and a director of a PR company specialising in IT.

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