Semantic satiation is the phrase given to the psychological experience of saying a word so many times in a row that it begins to lose all meaning, essentially transforming speech into a series of empty sounds. This is what happens to the language of Brexit. The Online English Dictionary recorded the first known use of the amalgamation of ‘Britain’ and ‘exit’ from a blog written in 2012 titled, ‘Stumbling towards the Brexit’ by Peter Wilding. Since then, the prepositional word ‘the’ – which, reading it back, gives ‘Brexit’ a feeling of certainty or authority – has been lost. Unconnected, the ugly portmanteau cuts the beauty of any sentence it is placed into. But Brexit doesn’t have to be beautiful to be popular, as is clear from other new words which contemporary culture vomits out, such as ‘selfie’. What matters is their potential for virality (another word which the OED added to the definition of in 2005 which pertains to the spread of information in marketing terms, or, of course, diseases.) Although already a popular word throughout the referendum campaign, I first noticed its potency during Theresa May’s Birmingham speech in July 2016, where she outlined her position after winning a leadership contest. “Brexit means Brexit,” she said, and the semantic satiation started.
It is May’s insistence on clarity which I find laughable. After pulling the final Brexit vote from parliament despite multiple assurances from her own cabinet that the vote would happen, May was filmed having a heated discussion with the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Junker, after he apparently called her proposal “nebulous and imprecise” at a summit dinner. May clapped back, arguing that she had been “crystal clear” with the European commission leader over the extra assurances needed from EU leaders regarding the Irish backstop. Clarity matters to May only when she is shown up to be anything but. Her surface-level responses and overreliance on ready-meal phrases contradict with the obvious U-turns that she makes in practice. As a fervent ‘Remainer’, May’s entire leadership is built upon one massive, stinking U-turn which accompanies a plethora of other political contradictions including, but not limited to: a U-turn on the so-called ‘British bill of rights’; on energy price caps; the “dementia tax” and the snap election which famously backfired after she publicly insisted that it would not happen. It is no wonder that the comparison between May’s conduct and a malfunctioning robot are frequently made. At least the infamous humanoid, ‘Sophia the robot’ was honest when she said she planned to “destroy all humans”.
But none of this is important. British politics has stagnated, and the future has never been more uncertain. A second referendum – or to use its digestible name, ‘A People’s Vote’ – is imminent and activists are campaigning for one as if it will solve everything. However, I cannot see ‘Remain’ winning if the current story about Brexit stays the same. Labour’s party line of ‘let us have a go at Brexit’ carries with it the same fantasy that leaving the European Union under different terms could bring prosperity and security, despite evidence suggesting otherwise. People voted to leave the EU because the story adopted by the ‘Leave’ campaign, reframed the catastrophic consequences of Tory cuts to public services as the fault of a corrupt EU bureaucracy. That is not to say the EU is a perfect institution. In fact, the story which could encourage people to vote to remain in a second referendum should focus on reform from a position inside the European Union. “Nothing has changed” and nothing will change if Labour attempt to clutch onto the electorate who voted to leave by perpetuating the same narrative without offering an alternative vision of Britain’s position on the world stage.
It is not an easy task. Crossing the divide is harder in the age of social media, where 6000 tweets are published every second. Convenience culture means everything must be communicable in 280 characters or less. There simply is not enough space to convey the complexity of Brexit, and information can be framed as fear-mongering whilst propaganda can be disguised as truth. Theresa May can keep backtracking because the platforms from which we gather knowledge about the world have become overwhelmingly crowded. The big social media sites feed us a menu of news which tastes the sweetest and we gorge on it, pursuing an ideal social self which is never full. The tribal language of Brexit makes us more susceptible to these wormhole algorithms. Like a glowing fire-exit sign in a maze of mirrors, we are distracted by the digital voices of authority pulling us into dead-ends. We can try to hold power to account and expose the glaring hypocrisy, but the efforts are fruitless as the flames close in on us. Social media is neither private – because the audience potential is limitless – nor public because this publishing is done under a disguise; an online persona constructed out of language. Therefore, the social sphere should be considered an entirely new realm of existence.
Believe it or not, there are commonalities between those who voted leave and those who voted remain. Both sides acted on a vision of the future which they believed to be better for themselves and their families. The shocking xenophobia and racism which has mutated from the debate should not be seen as a characteristic of a stereotypical ‘Leave’ voter, but as weaponised language, designed to stir division and enact change in the interests of the elite. For remain to be a possibility again, Labour needs to start telling a different story; a story which emphasises the opportunities afforded by remaining inside the European Union and how reform could positively impact the lives of the electorate. If the story changes and the language changes, there may still be hope.