Brexit is stretching the abilities of even the most talented politicians, journalists, and comedians to explain what’s going on in a comprehensible way.
A recent YouGov poll found that a good chunk of British people still don’t understand some of the jargon commonly used to discuss the UK’s departure from the EU, including the terms “hard Brexit,” (37% of respondents said they “don’t really know what this means” or have never heard of it), the customs union (47%), and the “backstop plan” (56%.) And that’s among the people most directly affected by the situation—what hope do people have following the situation from afar?
Not much. How do you sum up more than two years of prime minister Theresa May’s intransigence, the EU’s aloof response to the UK’s domestic chaos, the amendments, resignations, grandstanding, talks, talks about future talks, and all the rest of it? At this point, you either understand the Irish backstop or you don’t.
As a result, and let’s try to find something positive to say about this, a number of creative analogies and metaphors have been conjured up to make sense of things for the befuddled masses. They may not be too helpful in understanding the ins and outs of Brexit, but in the process they reveal something deeper about the entire affair.
People are drawing on “what they know about the world to try and make sense of the complexity of Brexit—to help them explain the situation, and to capture and grasp for them what is relevant,” explains Katharine Tyler, an associate professor at the University of Exeter. Metaphors not only provide humor and help relieve tension in a situation, but they also capture the “feelings, the sentiment, and the gravity of the situation for people,” says Tyler, who is leading a research project on identity and the role of the media in Britain as it relates to Brexit.
That’s why Brexit, which is a highly technical, bureaucratic process, has solicited such sweeping and emotional comparisons. It’s been popularly described as a divorce, for example: “Imagine it this way: you have a Mommy and a Daddy who love each other very much, but they decide they’d like to live apart—and then Daddy sets himself on fire.” Also, as a brutal breakup: “People keep talking about Brexit as a divorce, but divorces mostly happen between maturer adults. This is more like a terrible breakup in your 20s, a romcom so brutal that all the com in the world can’t get Cameron Diaz on board.”
The name “Brexit” itself consciously signals a specific image of escape, writes James Tapper for JSTOR. It’s also a “multi-metaphored beast because it is complicated,” Tapper writes. “It bears no obvious resemblance to any other political situation in modern history.”
Some analogies are more light-hearted than others. Cooking is a helpful way to understand complex situations. And so, for some, Brexit is a little like making a cake, taking eggs out of an omelet, or being unsure of the best way to brew a cup of tea.
Other analogies are more dire, featuring Doomsday metaphors, comparisons to a black hole, or “being strangled alive in a sadomasochistic game with no explosive end.” Never mind what you’ll find among the almost 13 million Google results that come up for “Brexit nightmare.”
Why, though, liken Brexit to something that exists in the real world? Maybe it’s best to stretch the imagination:
A thread that runs through these analogies is a desire to compare Brexit to aspects of real life that people can understand—aside from a stilton-based submersible—to bring it back from the abstract world of political statements and legal wrangling. Tyler cites the metaphor used by Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, who drew on her background as a doctor to explain why she had switched from a supporting leaving the EU to calling for a second Brexit referendum. If Theresa May’s proposed Brexit deal were to go ahead, it “would be a bit like asking someone to consent to an operation two years in advance without them knowing whether they will have two toes removed or their whole leg,” Wollaston said. “People have a right to make risky decisions if they feel that the outcome of the surgery is going to be better for them in the long run.”
The lexicon “erupting” from the Brexit process isn’t necessarily helping people understand the situation better, says Tyler. But in grappling with the topic, people reveal something more fundamental about their identities and worldview. “It’s not that the analogy is doing the work,” Tyler says. “I think it’s something deeper, that’s always already been there, [that’s] coming to the fore. Analogies are part of expressing that.”