...free to think freely


10th August 2018

Now I’ve read it I can comment properly

Two days ago I wrote a brief comment about the controversy around Boris Johnson and the burka. At that time I was unable to assess the situation fully because I was unable to find a way to read his column on line and I don’t live near enough to a newspaper library to be able to access a readily-available paper copy.

I am now pleased to be able to report that a second attempt to gain access to the full text on line has now succeeded, so I am now in a better position to form an opinion on the matter.

Some of what I suspected then is correct, in the sense that the protesters seem to be exaggerating to some extent. However, it is also true that the language of which they complain is clearly present.

For those who haven’t read the column, perhaps a short summary of the gist would help.

Mr Johnson begins by expressing his surprise that the Danish government has adopted a ban on niqabs and burkas from 1st August and that a woman has already been fined for wearing a niqab. He then gives his opinion that it is bullying to “expect” women to cover their faces and adds that he can find no authority for it in the Qu’ran. (He uses the older English spelling rather than the one favoured by Muslims but I see no reason to follow his practice there.) Then comes the first of the controversial comments; “I would go further,” he writes, “and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes; and I thoroughly dislike any attempt by any – invariably male – government to encourage such demonstrations of ‘modesty’...” citing an example of violent oppressive enforcement to emphasise his point.

He aligns himself with Jack Straw in asking any hypothetical woman wearing a face covering while consulting him in his surgery to remove it as a barrier to communication and then delivers the second remark to cause offence in some. “If a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber then ditto...” going on to argue that in some circumstances a dress code requiring people to make their facial expressions available for others to read is appropriate.

He then goes on to argue for the right of adult individuals to express themselves freely, which includes the wearing of symbols including religious ones, that it is wrong to persecute people and counter-productive to be heavy-handed in opposing people’s choices, since that increases the sense of grievance and determination of those so oppressed, concluding that the Danish law is “a bit extreme” and the UK should not imitate it.

That, then, is an overview of the article in question and with that in sight it becomes possible to make a more informed assessment.

So how does this look from a Diverse Diversity perspective? Well, in some ways it fits quite well: the idea that rules need to be contextual and not necessarily absolute, belief in free expression and not being constrained by others’ prejudices. However, Diverse Diversity is also about being calm and respectful to others, and although Mr Johnson’s reference to letterboxes and bank robbers might not be intended to be quite as inflammatory as portrayed in popular media, they are still, to use his own words, “a bit extreme”.

People do not look like letterboxes when wearing a burka. One could argue that the slit in the burka looks a little like a letterbox, but not the whole garment or the person wearing it. That’s just silly. No one would seriously mistake the purpose of the eye slit in that way. True, if a woman donned a bright red burka she might look reminiscent of a pillar box, but that would be unlikely. Few burkas, if any, are bright red, and it would be an odd choice of colour precisely because it could lead to such ridicule, possibly from her immediate family and friends. On the other hand, following Mr Johnson’s comment, perhaps bright red burkas will become fashionable as a humorous protest against him. If so, he has only himself to blame.

What about the second comment? That strikes me as even sillier. I have never heard of a bank robber using anything that resembles Islamic ladies’ dress, so the comparison is nonsense. Secondly, though I agree there are circumstances where two-way communication is important, a university lecture is not normally one of those, since the audience at a lecture is normally passive, except in the question time at the end. There is rarely a need for the lecturer to see the reaction of each individual student. True, the general reaction might enable him or her to assess his or her performance, but the impact of one or two students hiding their faces would be minimal so long as most faces were visible. A seminar or tutorial might be different, but not a lecture.

So what are we to make of this? I think it’s important to recognise that, whatever the imperfections in the way Mr Johnson expressed himself, he was basically on the side of freedom. He clearly doesn’t like face-coverings, but he supports the wearing of them by free choice in circumstances when they will not impede communication. He was not trying to turn people against those who wear such things. He is not intolerant in this area because he recognises people’s right to do something he does not like. Saying he doesn’t like it is not intolerance; that is just expressing his opinion, which he should be free to do.

On the other hand, some of his attempts at humour or emphasis were wide of the mark and therefore not entirely appropriate, and potentially offensive because they were in poor taste and not well thought-through, and for that he should probably apologise. He went too far.

However, the howls of protest are also a little excessive. His comparisons were feeble, but not obviously aimed at hurting anyone. They were visual puns which don’t quite work, rather than attempts to undermine people. They could be moderately offensive to a burka-wearing woman and that is regrettable, but raising the temperature in protest is likely to convert that offence into fear for women who have not had the opportunity to read his remarks in context and might not know he is, with personal reservations, on their side. As such, I think the protest is also overdone and potentially destabilising to society. These bad puns deserve the time-honoured groan rather than an indignant clamour.