What should we make of Boris Johnson’s burqa comments?

Unless you’ve had your head in the sand – or you’re not the from the UK – you will have heard about Boris Johnson’s latest remarks. Having made comments about Muslim women wearing the hijab and burqa, cue a load of righteous outrage. It is becoming par for the course these days. People make such comments, stir up a hornets nest that they know will garner them some attention and then stoically insist they will not succumb to the increasingly ludicrous responses that tend to ramp up when one declines to apologise. We, once again, find ourselves embroiled in a matter of free speech. So what are the pertinent issues at play that bear considering?

For a start, Boris wasn’t advocating banning anything, which could rightly be deemed illiberal. Tories have been lining up to make the point that, though they wouldn’t have used his words, he was raising a perfectly legitimate issue and wasn’t seeking to ban anyone from doing anything. He was describing something in terms that he probably deemed humorous, albeit inflammatory, while others consider his words offensive and obnoxious. Some have been calling for him to be banned from voicing his illiberal views in the terms he did, which would be, somewhat ironically, illiberal.

Many – including the Prime Minister – have called on Boris to apologise. He has, thus far, refused. I commented here on the pointlessness of the forced apology (and David Mitchell said this a while ago, that seems pertinent). The fact is, even were Boris to say sorry, he would only be doing so to placate those asking for it. Given that we all know this to be the case, it is evidently true that his apology would not be enough. He would be saying it to kill a story, not because he genuinely meant it. The apology itself would be worthless and there would be continuing calls for further reprisals until justice – such as those calling for an apology judge it – had been seen to be done.

To ban Boris from speaking in the terms that he did would be an infringement of free speech. However, if the newspaper for whom he writes a column or the party for whom he stands determine that his comments put him beyond the bounds of acceptability and choose to disassociate from him, this is no matter of free speech. It is reasonable to suggest that either of those groups asking for an apology to satisfy themselves that Boris deems his choice of words unacceptable, and simultaneously freeing them from any guilt by association, is entirely legitimate for them to ask. They would be well within their rights, not to stop him from saying what he has said, but to withdraw their platform for him to say it and to disassociate themselves from him.

It would be entirely understandable if the Conservative Party chose to disassociate from Boris by removing the whip from him, being as they are involved in the world of politics and such things have a habit of undermining the fundamental goal of your entire organisations, namely winning and clinging onto power. In the case of the Telegraph newspaper, no doubt they would be moved to act if it hit their bottom line. But if people continue buying their paper, I suspect Boris can spout off whatever views he likes so far as the editorial team are concerned. Just as nobody in Liverpool now buys the Sun, collectively withdrawing custom hits businesses hard and can succeed in changing the behaviour of corporate companies. Let’s be honest, most charity work and the like undertaken by major corporations are done so because they think it will increase their profile and cause potential customers – who are now particularly driven by causes – to purchase their products or services because the company identify with the right virtues.

In the case of newspapers, however, there is a case to be made for allowing a broad range of views. But it should be said that this is not a free speech issue. Not affording you my platform to spread views that are antithetical to my organisation is not impeding your free speech. Banning you from voicing your views altogether would be an impediment to free speech. So, to be clear, not giving somebody a voice on your particular newspaper is not a free speech issue (otherwise they’ve all impeded my freedom of speech, along with all of yours, by not giving all 70 million of us a regular column).

Nonetheless, society needs to take a hard look at itself when its knee-jerk response to views it doesn’t like is to ban them or, failing that, get the person who said them sacked. We talk a good game on free speech but we’re very quick to speak about it not being ‘consequence free’, by which we mean not free from punishment, which is just another way of saying it’s not free at all.

Many are fond of quoting Churchill, ‘some people’s idea of free speech is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, it is an outrage’. And so we are, indeed, all free to say what we like and say whatever we like in response. Boris has said what he has said and the rest of us are free to agree, ignore or furiously blog about how awful it is.

But many, in quoting Churchill, seem to think he was saying something closer to, ‘some people’s idea of free speech is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone does anything back, it is an outrage’. That is specifically not what Churchill said and I suspect he would be affronted to see his name attached to that sort of sentiment. Some use Churchill’s comment to then suggest people should be sacked, or banned from public life, and all the rest. We may be free to say anything back we like; we are not free to do whatever we like in response or insist that others do our bidding.

For what it’s worth, I don’t agree with Boris. I certainly don’t believe in burqa and niqab bans (though, incidentally, nor does he). I wouldn’t mock Muslim women in the way he did. It is my personal view that he is making those comments as a dog whistle to appeal to a certain kind of voter. I find it a most unpleasant political ploy, it is unbecoming and it is unkind. I don’t endorse his views or the way he put them. If anybody seriously believes he was trying to kick off a serious debate (and I don’t entertain that idea for one minute) this was about the most provocative, and stupid, way to do it. He is far too bright for that to have been his intention

Nonetheless, I believe in his right to state his opinion in whatever terms he likes. I don’t believe he should be sacked for stating an opinion I find appalling, just as I didn’t think Katie Hopkins should have been sacked for saying even worse things than this (and how some of the arguments used against Boris have been used in questionable ways). I think papers and public life are the better for such views being in the open so that we can openly and clearly repudiate them. I see no purpose in a forced apology which everybody knows he would not mean.

Nonetheless, I think it is within the rights of both the Conservative Party and the Telegraph newspaper to end their association with him if they think his words are damaging to their raison d’etre, namely holding onto power and selling newspapers. The former I would certainly understand, the latter would be entitled but I can see a case for insisting on a wide range of views. What is it not within our rights is to insist that such views should not be voiced. We have no right to insist that people agree with us, no matter how appalling we find their opinions or the words with which they are stated.