Once again, we find ourselves facing the burqa controversy. Yawn. I really am beginning to wonder if no one is bothered about the rising rates of homelessness, the NHS, knife crime – you know, the issues that affect more than 0.01% of the population. It’s a tiresome debate and quite frankly one that I believe has absolutely nothing to do with the burqa and everything to do with cheap political tactics.
Now, before I continue, I would like to stress my support for freedom of speech. It’s a beautiful right that indeed thousands of men and women have fought for over the centuries. I remember sitting in my A Level history class and being inspired beyond words as I was learning about Henry Heatherington’s ‘War of the Newspapers’ – a five-year campaign to remove the stamp taxes to ensure that everyone could afford to buy and read newspapers.
Having said that, we must remember from which context these ideals of freedom of speech were born in Britain. Freedom of speech was the product of the suppression of the working class who were not properly equipped to oppose the system. The 1795 Treasonable Practices Act and Prevention of Seditious Meetings Act ensured that people could not openly object to oppressive forces. Ideals of freedom of speech in the West were born from this.
Freedom of speech was never meant to offend. It is not a free pass to insult and belittle people. Yes, freedom of speech is our right, but it is also a responsibility that must be taken seriously. We must vocalise our opinions without dehumanising and hurting people.
Therefore, when we face issues such as the burqa or other sensitive issues, we must do so in a civilised manner. It is completely possible to state your honest opinion without hurting anyone.
But in this case, I do not think Mr Johnson’s honest intention was to simply voice his opinion. Despite what the media might make of him, he is an intelligent man. He knew exactly what he was starting when he said he thinks the burqa is a “ridiculous” dress that makes women look like”letterboxes and bank robbers”. This is where I believe he crossed the line from freedom of speech and into insults. Had he simply voiced his opinion without such unnecessary comparisons, the situation would be different. But he chose to use inflammatory language that would ensure a strong reaction and therefore would reserve a place for his name on the front page of every newspaper for the rest of the week.
Further, it is the trivialisation of this issue that Rowan Atkinson has so helpfully added to by saying of these comparisons: “I do think that Boris Johnson’s joke about wearers of the burqa resembling letterboxes is a pretty good one.”
I find this most bizarre considering I have grown up watching Mr Bean and Blackadder and never once have I seen Mr Atkinson rely on religion as the butt of his joke. His jokes are witty and bring a genuine smile to my face, so it confused me to see him defending this “joke”. Surely, as a comedian, Mr Atkinson would understand that a good or bad joke is not only determined by the speaker but also by the audience.
As the laws of physics say – every action has an equal reaction. If Boris Johnson has used inflammatory language, he must expect a strong response. Had he understood what freedom of speech really means and simply put forward a logical debate to back his opinion there would have been absolutely no need for any investigation, and even any complaints. Whilst the foundations of freedom of speech should be protected at all costs, we cannot allow “freedom of speech” to be synonymous to “freedom to offend”.
We need an open dialogue, but that is being threatened by those who cannot express an opinion without hurting others.