Boris Johnson has come under heavy fire over the past two days for comments he made in The Telegraph. His argument was that Denmark – a country that has banned the burka – got it wrong; that the burka is oppressive and ridiculous but that’s still no reason to ban it. He argued that women have the right to wear whatever they desire to wear. So, what’s the problem?
Johnson’s column has been met with mass outrage within the press and social media sphere, with many accusations of racism and Islamophobia made against him. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell even went as far as labelling him ‘far-right’ for his comments.
So why has this column caused such outrage? What did Boris say to warrant such accusations?
The furious response isn’t because of any argument he made in the article, or any perspective he presented. Rather, the outrage was entirely directed at Johnson’s descriptions of the burka as resembling a “letterbox” or a “bank robber”.
Are these comparisons unprofessional? Arguably. Are they insensitive? Arguably. Are the comparisons offensive? Arguably. But are these comparisons racist or Islamophobic? Not by any stretch of the imagination.
The root cause of the controversy is that Johnson said things that could offend some people and is therefore racist. No, I can’t follow the logic either. Especially when you consider these comments are made within the wider context of a defence of a Muslim woman’s right to choose what to wear. You don’t often find racists defending the liberties of those they supposedly hate.
The argument presented by Boris’s critics hinges on the belief that if something offends someone, then it shouldn’t be said. Anna Soubry has been one of the voices who has joined the queue to be angry at Boris, but it didn’t seem to be a problem when she called the burka a “peculiar concept”. But nobody better exemplified the faux outrage than Theresa May’s call for Boris to apologise, stating that his remarks “clearly caused offence”, conveniently forgetting she didn’t issue an apology after her own controversial moment at the Conservative Party Conference in 2015.
But let’s dissect their argument that “offence” inherently deserves to be respected and indulged. Offence is arbitrary. There is no metric by which to measure it. There is no demonstrable harm it causes. There is no objective threshold or standard for offence. People can take great offence from the most benign statements, and people can take no offence from the most hateful.
Secondly, within this demand for an apology is the implicit assertion that some beliefs are somehow sacred. That if a belief is passionately held – whether religious, political, or otherwise – it is beyond criticism, beyond mockery, or even beyond discussion, simply by dint of the devotion of its believer.
This is an outdated and extremely dangerous idea and is the exact same argument used to justify blasphemy laws. It seems that modern blasphemy laws are precisely what many of Boris’s critics want to implement – not through government, but through cultural and societal pressures. They want to enact forms of punishment for those who mock religious practices. Is that not a fairly accurate definition of blasphemy? I thought we had outgrown these primitive practices back in the 1800s, yet now it seems many are seeking a revival.
Have we really regressed back to a point where we cannot criticise or mock aspects of culture, even in defence of women’s rights, simply through fear of offending that culture? These are the very same pre-feminist ideas that would have put a halt to the suffrage movement. In fact, not just the suffrage movement, think of any stride of progress in all of human history. Every liberty you enjoy, every value you hold dear, at one point in time was considered horrifically offensive. It is for this reason that offensiveness alone must never be considered a moral standard by which to judge ideas. Without the freedom to offend, there can never be progress, and in turn, fear of offence stunts progress, we must not resurrect these forgotten fears.
One of the most bizarre parts of this whole controversy is how patronising many of our politicians and commentators seem to be about the Islamic community. Most religious Brits can handle a bit of criticism or ridicule of their more unusual practices and beliefs. We scoffed at those Christians who were offended when Monty Python released The Life of Brian, we chuckled at their sensitivity and inability to withstand a bit of mockery. We respect the Christian community enough, though, to expect them not to take offence from such ridicule; but now we refuse to afford the same respect to Muslims? That is true prejudice.
I think it speaks volumes about the outrage culture currently infecting the British media that at a time when women in Iran are being beaten and imprisoned for removing their veils, we are busy using our front pages to hound Boris Johnson for comparing a piece of clothing to a letterbox. Shows an impressive lack of perspective, don’t you think?
Boris Johnson has refused to apologise for his comments – and rightly so. Why should he have to? Simply because they caused offence? There is a worrying trend of people in the public eye capitulating to the outrage mob, apologising and revoking statements simply because they caused offence. It’s incredibly refreshing that someone has finally had the courage to break this trend and stand up for the most important freedom we have: the freedom to offend.