Boris Johnson has once again drawn the ire of the British public. But are we right to insist that he apologise or withdraw his comments?
By Adam Snell
Boris Johnson is a contentious figure. Long before he was the face of Brexit, he was a controversial name inducing laughs in some and groans in others, all the while carving his own place in British politics. However, given his prominence in the Vote Leave campaign, plastering fabrications on the side of a bus, and the transparent, self-serving nature of his actions, it is likely that he will be remembered more for his lack of moral fibre than for his gaffes or meagre stint as foreign secretary. A man of the people he has never been, and his tumultuous career has survived a great deal. However, it seems that a man with a history as chequered as his may finally be in the cross hairs, accused of the phantom charge of ‘islamophobia’.
He has once again drawn the ire of the British public. His most recent transgression, which may yet turn out to be a step too far, is insulting the burka. To many readers his Telegraph article is objectionable enough. His pet thesis, that Denmark is a bastion of freedom against the tyranny of EU legislation feels as though it has the same calibre of intellectual honesty as his exposé about imported cakes. In the context of the piece, his comments are somewhat unremarkable. Yet a handful of choice quotes have been plucked with such artful precision that one wonders if the architects of this outrage hope that those outraged have not in fact read it. Whilst Johnson’s glamorisation of unhealthy and dangerous habits as quintessentially Danish are clearly self-serving, he is setting up this spirit of defiance against the EU as a call of defiance against another perceived tyranny: the tyranny of anti-burka laws.
Whatever criticisms Johnson is levelling at the Islamic dress, he is doing so in the context of defending the right of a woman to choose it. The fact that this is not apparent from criticisms of Johnson speaks to the shameless depths that some will sink to weave a victimisation narrative. This distinction is of critical importance, because if Johnson’s ridicule of the dress is distasteful, then presumably the poor taste rests upon the accusation that Johnson is ridiculing the women, not their choice in clothing.
“Whatever criticisms Johnson is levelling at the Islamic dress, he is doing so in the context of defending the right of a woman to choose it.”
So, what precisely is Johnson accused of? Saying that those dressed in a burka “look like letterboxes”, or “like a bank robber”? Is this an attack on an individual? Hardly. It is an attack on the way that the clothing looks and, as the point of this particular item it to produce uniformity in appearance, it hardly seems to be a particularly personal attack on the dress of any individual. What is he achieving here? He is adding his usual ingredient to a discussion, dismissively mocking his detractors. He is adding a touch of colour to that which he has already said: “The burka is oppressive and ridiculous.” Whether the phrasing appeals to our sensibilities or not, he is really saying nothing more offensive than this and insisting that he apologise, or withdraw his comments for the former, is merely echoing the calls of those who wish to undermine those that say the latter. The sole difference is that the element of ridicule adds one thing, a lack of deference to the garment itself.
In this recent outrage, there has been a deliberate attempt to conflate a lack of respect for an individual and a lack of respect for an individual’s belief. When a woman chooses to wear the burka, she chooses to participate in the cultural expression of a belief that the female body is deeply immodest and should only be looked upon by one’s husband. This is an especially vulgar belief. The whole point of Johnson’s article is to safeguard the ability of women who make this choice, yet apparently some demand that he respects that choice too.
Boris Johnson is unlikely to have a positive effect on British politics going forward. If those still loyal to May want to assist her in some Lannister-esque plot to finally be rid of the man, then that is their prerogative.Most wish to see less of him and it is not unlike May to side with those with a theocratic streak to consolidate power. However, we should also be aware that actions set precedents. If it becomes a new rule of British politics that we must always publicly agree with those who think that the burka is a valid and free choice for women to make, then it is a day for sombre reflection. Until that day comes we should be hesitant to jump on the bandwagon with those that wish to undermine Johnson because of their sense that we should always speak with deference about a garment that is both oppressive and ridiculous.