The current debate over the relationship between religious traditions and freedom of expression holds legitimacy for discussion on a public platform, yet Johnson’s comments suggest an underlying intention to spark controversy for political gain. If you were looking at a joke by a stand-up comedian or a cartoon in a satirical magazine, then a debate on this subject is a vitally important one. So when comic actor and screenwriter Rowan Atkinson defended Boris Johnson’s comments comparing the appearance of Muslim women who wear burqas to that of a ‘letter box’ or ‘bank robber’, it’s evident that he has missed the point. If someone like Frankie Boyle or Sarah Silverman, or any other comedian that has made a living from telling jokes that may cause offence had made the same comments, then this would be a completely different debate. This would be a debate about freedom of speech and the extent to which comedic platforms should be limited to coincide with respectfulness and political correctness.
But it’s not. These comments came from a man who has been mayor of our capital city, a member of Parliament, the Foreign secretary, and someone who clearly has ambitions to move in to number 10 Downing Street. He knew exactly what he was saying and how people would view it, given his political CV and the status that comes with it. In an argument that has raged in the weeks since Johnson’s article was published, some point to the fact that the main thrust of the article in which these comments appear is actually a defence of liberal values; that he is defending a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants even if he personally disagrees with it and finds it “oppressive and ridiculous”. That is true, but Boris Johnson knows that you don’t start debates on breakfast TV and in the comments section of the Daily Mail website by having nuanced liberal-leaning views like that by themselves.
On the other hand, some say that such comparisons to objects and criminals are degrading to women who choose to practise modesty for religious reasons, and that comments like these legitimise abuse and bigotry on a national level. However true that may be, people who want to denigrate Muslim women to the status of second-class citizens and even abuse them do not need an article in a national newspaper to give them an excuse for their vile bigotry, they’re going to have their backward views with or without the national platform of bigotry which Johnson has brought to the fore.
The trick here, it seems to me, is to remember that what the former Foreign Secretary actually thinks about one thing or another is essentially inconsequential, other than there having been increased coverage of Boris in political media. He will say whatever will get him the most attention, and it has worked an absolute charm. He probably agrees with the liberal viewpoint on freedom to wear whatever you want, but he knows that the average Conservative party member does not care for that in isolation and so he has to grab their attention by using language that is offensive.
This is a man who has just left the government after holding one of its most respected roles, in an attempt to distance himself from the Prime Minister. He recognised May’s vulnerability over Brexit and made any excuse to leave the cabinet so that he can return, in the event that Brexit turns in to a full-scale disaster, as the Brexiteer outsider who can offer the Conservative Party the direction it needs.
So, while he needs to be quiet to remain a political ‘outsider’, he also can’t remain silent as that will quickly lead to irrelevance, the biggest fear of any politician. That’s why he chose the language he did in this article. That is the reason he has not, and will not, apologise. He needs to stay in the minds of those who bought his dishonest ‘Vote Leave’ message on NHS funding and retain credibility as a man who speaks his mind and is strong enough to deal with the consequences.
This is not an attempt at humour which must be cherished as an example of free speech, or a view on a genuinely important issue that needs to be discussed more throughout the western world. This is the start of a political manifesto for power. We’ll probably even see something similarly polemic emerge in the weeks and months to come, so that people remember he’s still there.
Acknowledging this piece as the empty, purely strategic power-play it is means that the controversy of the rhetoric cools, and we can see it for what it really is. A man trying desperately to stay in the political limelight.
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