Defence of Johnson amounts to a charter for the oppression of a vulnerable minority

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In defence of Boris Johnson’s remarks about the wearing of the burqa and the niqab, his supporters have replied: “You need to read the full article to see the context”. I have now read Johnson’s full article. That is ten minutes of my life I won’t get back. It is remarkable that he gets paid a King’s ransom for such tosh. More galling, he has been doing it (certainly up to 26th July, three weeks after he resigned from the government) at our expense from 1 Carlton Gardens.

David Yelland, who was Editor of the Sun from 1998 to 2003, has tweeted:


Shrouded amidst a rather generalised and vaguely creepy paeon of praise to Denmark, cloaked in criticism of their Burqa ban, was some very nasty and unnecessary verbiage. I quote here his whole passage with the particularly egregious words in bold, so that I can’t be accused of quoting Johnson out of context:

If you tell me that the burka is oppressive, then I am with you. If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree – and I would add that I can find no scriptural authority for the practice in the Koran. I would go further 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”, notably the extraordinary exhortations of President Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya, who has told the men of his country to splat their women with paintballs if they fail to cover their heads.

If a constituent came to my MP’s surgery with her face obscured, I should feel fully entitled – like Jack Straw – to ask her to remove it so that I could talk to her properly. If a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber then ditto: those in authority should be allowed to converse openly with those that they are being asked to instruct. As for individual businesses or branches of government – they should of course be able to enforce a dress code that enables their employees to interact with customers; and that means human beings must be able to see each other’s faces and read their expressions. It’s how we work.

The first thing that occurred to me on hearing about these comments was, refreshingly, articulated by Ruth Davidson. Describing Johnson’ comments as “gratuitously offensive”, she said:

If you use the analogy of Christianity, would you ever write in the Telegraph that you should have a debate about banning Christians from wearing crucifixes? It’s the same argument but it’s in a different faith so why are the parameters different for one faith and not the other?

In the last few days we have seen predictable defences of Johnson (I refuse to refer to him as “Boris” as it makes him sound cuddly and funny, which he ain’t) citing the right to free speech. Iain Duncan-Smith said:

We live in a land which has freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom of choice. If you want to uphold those, there will always be some that will take offence.

The right to free speech does not give you the right to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre. Likewise, purely gratuitous, disingenious and unnecessary ridiculing of one branch of society cannot be supported by the right to free speech.

Similarly, our rights to do or say things are balanced by whether or not they cause harm to others. – The harm principle written about by J.S.Mill in “On Liberty”. It is very clear that Johnson’s remarks have or will cause a ramping up of Islamaphobia.

Amazingly, Rowan Atkinson has defended Johnson’s remarks on the grounds that they are funny:

I do think that Boris Johnson’s joke about wearers of the burka resembling letterboxes is a pretty good one. All jokes about religion cause offence, so it’s pointless apologising for them. You should really only apologise for a bad joke. On that basis, no apology is required.

This remark has been neatly dispatched by comedian Shappi Khorsandi:

Leaving apologies aside, it looks like Rowan hasn’t set foot in a comedy club since 1984. The joke wasn’t good. It’s an old, obvious observation. I probably did a version of it myself once or twice back in the 1800s when I was a rookie standup and had no idea how to make jokes up yet. I can’t count the amount of comedians I’ve heard doing a letterbox/burqa gag. The former foreign secretary should, if anything, apologise for picking a tired old hackneyed gag out of the comedy club circuit’s jumble box. Stand up for free speech by all means, Mr Atkinson, but don’t confuse playground insults with humour.

There is no valid defence of Johnson’s remarks, which amount to gratuitous, cold-blooded, self-seeking oppression of a small, vulnerable and relatively powerless section of society.

I end with the words of Talat Yaqoob:

When (the Burqa) is mocked/belittled in such a public way, by a public figure, it endorses bigotry, it gives legitimisation to those bigots who threaten and attack visibly Muslim women in the streets – who are already more likely to experience attack. You are making their lives unsafe.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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14 Comments

  • Ian Hurdley 12th Aug '18 - 8:23am

    A ‘joke’ is not a get out of jail free card. I remember the 70s club scene with its comics and their gags, preeminent amongst whom was Bernard Manning. Targets included Irish, Welsh, Scots, Asians, West Indians, Jews, gays, women, and indeed any group that could be considered not to be good old English working class.
    It was a cruel, crude abusive humour that I am delighted to see consigned to the past, at least in the public arena.

  • Yeovil Yokel 12th Aug '18 - 9:13am

    This is about Boris career advancing his career, not a useful contribution to public debate. He’s not a comedian, he’s a politician and a senior one at that whose words carry weight and who uses them knowingly and irresponsibly. His hero, Churchill, was notorious for his barbed personal insults, but he made them in a less enlightened era and (as far as I’m aware) usually in private, and tended to target strong individuals rather than vulnerable minorities.

  • nigel hunter 12th Aug '18 - 10:44am

    He should be callled Johnson not by a friendly name of Boris. He loves the Limelight. Like a child he needs the attention,to be loved (big ego). By saying what he does he gets that attention.He loves stirring it in the guise of ‘liberal discussion’ which stifles sensible debate (also disappears on holiday). The papers lap it up, it sells copy,the editors know that it boosts his ego. He reminds me of the Muppets, a n orange headed child. He should be seen but not be given too much attention.

  • nigel hunter 12th Aug '18 - 4:49pm

    De Pfeffel studies Churchill. He wandered in the shadows writing in the dead years and rising when the chips were down (1940)Mr de Pf. thinks he is in the 30s ready for his. Churchill did not stir it with his comments unlike Mr. De P . waiting for his.future reignMr C. warned of the 3rd Reich and did not show racist tendencies, Mr P. does..He has delusions of grandeur. The Conservative party must beware of who they worship,caveat emptor, buyer beware.

  • Christopher Clayton 12th Aug '18 - 5:34pm

    In contradiction of Paul Walter’s main point “The right to ridicule is essential to free speech.” That is the title of Matthew Parris’ characteristically well-written, learned, well-reasoned article in The Times
    of Saturday, in which he states that he is “less bothered by Boris’s ill- judged pitch for the groundlings’ cheers than by the language of censorship his comments have provoked from people who should know better. There’s an ugly intolerance of honest expression afoot in our era ” . He also states that “as a serious player in serious politics he (B. Johnson) should never have written what he did in his Telegraph columns” He also states clearly Boris Johnson’s shortcomings; Parris is no fan of his. Parris better expresses a Liberal view than other comments here.

  • Peter Hirst 13th Aug '18 - 9:48am

    I think Mr Johnson is finding it challenging to distinguish between his private and his political life. Where the two differ, it is essential to be clear which hat he is wearing. Such a senior politician must know the effect his words will have or might have. Perhaps he should take lessons from the environmental movement and adopt the precautionary principle. If he is doing it for the effect, then he is stroking division, fear and anger.

  • There is a very simple distinction which people who defend such remarks on free speech grounds fail to understand or deliberately muddy. Censorship = the state preventing things being said, with legal sanctions attached. It is not an attack on free speech for an editor to choose not to publish something offensive. It is not an attack on free speech for someone to criticise a politician for saying something.

    Censorship, by the way, is not always illiberal. In time of war some censorship is necessary. Where there is a reasonable fear that extreme verbiage could spark riots or hate attacks, there is also a case for censorship. But attacking Johnson for his remarks is not censorship and it wouldn’t have been censorship for the editor to spike them.

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