Former Foreign Secretary, and probable candidate for political leadership of our country, Boris Johnson, recently decided that one of the major issues of our time is that several thousand women out of a population of around 64 million wear garments that cover part of their face.
He finds time in his busy life as an MP, representing his constituency, to write articles in newspapers and wrote about what some Muslim women wear and compared them to ‘letter boxes’ and ‘bank robbers’.
It is significant that these insults were about the people who wear the garments rather that the garments themselves.
No one except Johnson knows what actually motivated him to write these insults but it seems reasonable to assume it was to further his political ambitions and that he intended to engage with his ‘base’ within the Tory party by insulting a tiny minority of the population - Muslim ladies who wear Niqabs. It is ‘dog whistle’ politics.
These dehumanising comments about a group of fellow citizens already subject to abuse and fear have already done the job since he appears to have increased support from some sections of the Tory party - so well done him.
I used to run and arrange self-defence classes in an area of southern England with several thousand Muslim families living in the neighbourhood. Some of these classes were aimed at offering Muslim women a chance to learn self-defence and so I had a number of conversations with them on their experiences of being in public dressed as they do.
I was told that they often worried about going out in public places - especially after terrorist attacks because they in turn feared being attacked. Fear and actual attacks are different things of course but there are reports of an increase in attacks on Muslim women in the last couple of years - often by brave young males.
So here we have a wealthy and influential man seeking to gain support for his political ambitions by insulting and humiliating an already fearful and vulnerable group of our fellow citizens.
We may never know if Johnson knows or even cares that insulting these mothers, daughters and sisters might cause them serious problems - but he has so far refused to apologise.
Other wealthy white men have come out in support of him - Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean) - has argued on Johnson’s behalf that we should never have to apologise for a joke. It is not clear whether Atkinson knows or cares that these ‘jokes’ were aimed at a group of women who are already frightened of being attacked in the street.
Freedom of speech matters because it gives opportunities for the powerful to be challenged by the less powerful - the powerful and influential can be challenged about their behaviour and mocked and all that is right and proper. Of course there should be no laws or restrictions on anything we do or say unless there is a substantial reason for it.
But Johnson (and Mr Bean) are wealthy and influential and it is they who are picking on a small group of women who are not.
It is reasonable to debate the issues around religion and culture and that some people decide to cover their faces in public - but insulting them is not reasonable.
Freedom of speech should win in almost all circumstances except where it might lead to a frightened woman or girl in a street getting attacked, or lead to citizens being too frightened to go out in public. Words matter and racists respond to influential people telling them that it is acceptable to insult and humiliate women out shopping.
In my opinion Boris Johnson is a cynical individual and may yet become the Prime Minister of this country - and that will be a new low for the UK.