Boris, the Burqa and Britain’s crusade for Freedom of Speech │ George Jones
It is true that most would choose not to compare those who happen to wear the burqa to inanimate objects such as a “letterbox”, but those who do must be heard nonetheless. Ever since the dawn of Enlightenment thinking in the 18th Century, as free discourse became a hot topic in the coffee houses of Paris and the streets of Europe, freedom of speech and expression have remained core principles of Western Liberal democracies, such as our own. As Voltaire was rumoured to have said, “I disapprove of what you have to say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” Never before has this quote had a more significant message, liberty must always be championed.
If we were to assess the nature of Johnson’s comments, it would be clear that despite some unnecessary use of exaggeration in prime Boris fashion, criticising religious garments and indeed religion itself should be actively encouraged rather than repressed. Religions themselves are built upon sets of values and ideas which are there to be questioned and debated, instead of blindly accepting authority for authority’s sake. It is of paramount importance therefore, that in secular western societies such as our own, we make use of such a privilege; remembering all the while that states still exist where it is illegal to express one’s own individuality, illegal even to challenge the status quo. And then there is the debate surrounding the practicality of the burqa itself. It would not be untrue to claim, as many have done, that the burqa poses significant barriers for security services when dealing with potential criminals or suspects. Nor would it be wrong to suggest that some may feel intimidated by such a piece of clothing, given the fact that it originates from a culture which by and large, shares many differences from our own, and one which does not have such a clean track record even today when it comes down to protecting things such as women’s rights. Despite all of these views, an outright ban on the burqa would seem to be going against the very principle of freedom of expression. Instead we must allow women to choose whether or not to wear a burqa, but this must also mean that it is not exempt from criticism or questioning. Just like any other piece of clothing or anything else which represents the individual for that matter, nothing is free from criticism in a society which triumphs the rationality of human thought. This does not mean to say that we should actively mock those who choose to express themselves differently to us. Just because we have the right to criticise and the right to free speech does not mean we should aim to make people’s lives a misery for a choice which, on the whole, has relatively minor repercussions on how we live our day to day lives.
Whilst the former Foreign Secretary’s comments may have caused quite the stir, his opinion must not be shut down on this issue. This is not to say that one must agree with his view to appreciate the beauty of free speech. In order to evolve our own moral sensibilities and build our own line of argument, we have to expose ourselves to differing views in order to stamp out what we perceive to be ‘ignorant’ or ‘offensive’ and then combat these views with even stronger rebuttals. To silence such criticism would, frankly, be a blatant attempt to suffocate free speech. This kind of suffocation is already being observed through the actions of ANTIFA and such groups, who instead of silencing those who they deem to be intolerant, which in some cases has even equated to gatherings of Conservative students, are merely fuelling the rise of far more intolerant individuals.
The lesson to be learned on this occasion, more speech, more views, regardless of whether we are in agreement or not, is the answer to solving bigotry and intolerance. In the end ignorance can, and will, be defeated.