Thursday, 9 August 2018

Bojo and The Burka

Boris Johnson's comment that women wearing the Burka look like letter boxes, is not of itself racist or Islamophobic. His motivation for making the comment is. 

In  The Blues Brothers, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi return to the Catholic orphanage where they grew up, and are greeted by Kathleen Freeman, as Sister Mary Stigmata, who they refer to as “The Penguin”. In fact, jokes and comedy sketches abound about nuns similarity to Penguins. People are free to dress, however, they like, to fashion their hair, however, they like, to stick bits of metal in all parts of their body, however, they like. But, equally, in a free society, everyone else is free to comment about it, including the right to mock it. When also in The Blues Brothers, their attire of black suits and hats leads to them being described as looking like Hasidic diamond merchants, that is not racist or anti-Semitic either. That is free expression, not racism. Attempts to brand such free expression as racism, anti-Semitism, or Islamophobia are actually reactionary attempts to limit free speech, and to covertly reintroduce the kind of censorship, blasphemy laws and intolerance that socialists and modernists fought so hard to remove in the early 1960's. 

In the early 1960's, we had the Church and moral crusaders like Mary Whitehouse trying to ensure that bans on books like Lady Chatterley's Lover remained in place, because its contents offended their religious sensibilities. They likewise sought to restrict what people could see on TV, or on the stage, that they thought might corrupt public morals. We see the same thing with religious zealots who oppose abortion, and wish to impose their own moral code upon others. They want to be free to practice their own religious and moral beliefs, but they want to prevent others that do not share those beliefs from expressing criticism of them. Increasingly, they seek not only to deny others the right to such criticism, but, as with abortion, or as with the attempts of Whitehouse, they seek to impose their moral code on the rest of society. It is such bigotry and intolerance of criticism that leads to schism, and to religious wars, where two or more of these moral codes come into conflict with each other. It is a picture that is seen across other parts of the globe; it was a feature of Britain at a time when religious mysticism played a larger role in society. When the Puritan bigots in Britain, found they had lost the battle against increasing religious freedom in Britain, it led them to set sail for America, and to transplant that bigotry to its shores instead. 

In the early 1960's, brave people stood up to the remnants of that religious bigotry in Britain. They went to court to defend the right for Lady Chatterley's Lover to be published, for play's featuring nudity on stage, depicting homosexuality, and so on to be free from censorship. A large part of the struggle against that censorship and religious bigotry took the form of satire, and mockery of the ridiculousness of religion, of its ridiculous beliefs, paraphernalia, rituals, garb, and prejudices. It was undertaken by satirical magazines like Private Eye, by TV shows like That Was the Week That Was, Not Only But Also, and by Dave Allen

Dave Allen particularly mocked the ridiculousness of the Catholic Church, and all those trappings. It led to him being banned in Ireland, and in repeated death threats to him, including from the IRA, which presented itself as the military wing of the Catholic Church. All of the work of socialists, democrats and modernists during the 1960's, of removing all of the dead hand of censorship, and of religious intolerance and bigotry is being undermined, as criticism of all sorts is being banned by simply calling it racist, Islamophobic, Anti-Semitic and so on. It is time to put a stop to that, before all of the gains made in the 1960's, are lost once more, and once lost, they are much harder to regain. 

The fact is that had a Muslim equivalent of Dave Allen, made the comments that Bojo made, about women wearing the burka looking like letter boxes, it would be quite clear that what was being said was not, of itself racist or Islamophobic. The fact that any such Muslim comedian might, like Dave Allen, have faced death threats also, or like those Jews that criticise Israel as being a racist state, still face being accused of anti-Semitism by militant Zionists, illustrates the extent to which the use of these terms has simply become a lazy, and convenient means of closing down any such debate and criticism. It illustrates the way reality has been turned on its head, so that free expression and criticism of intolerance and bigotry, in religious garb, is itself branded as intolerance, or racism etc. It is not intolerant or racist, to express views about religion, and all of the ridiculous trappings that go with it. It would be intolerant to try to, then, ban people from practising such religion, or adopting all of the ridiculous trappings that go with it. But, in fact, Bojo himself did not do that. His article was actually about the decision in Denmark to ban the wearing of the Burka, and he was writing to oppose such bans. 

But, Johnson is an experienced journalist as well as politician. He knew what he was doing when he wrote his piece. It was skilfully crafted so as to be on that right side of the argument, in terms of personal freedom. But, the use of the description was intended as a dog whistle appeal to all of the actually racist and Islamophobic elements within the Tory Party that he needs to rally to his banner, when the inevitable leadership election takes place. All of the media attention in the last few days is precisely what he was aiming for, because he knew that it would not be the part of his article attacking the ban on the Burka that would attract the attention, but his short mocking description of it. It is the motivation behind Bojo's words that makes it racist, not the words themselves. 

It would, in fact, be a good thing if a Muslim comedian were to perform a similar role as that undertaken by Dave Allen in the 1960's. Marxists should favour criticism, including mockery of the ridiculous nature of religion, of whatever brand. Criticism and mockery of religion, is, of course not the same as mockery of the individuals that practice such religions. Dave Allen would never have gone up to an individual Catholic and mocked them in the way he did the religion itself, for example. Comedians do not go up to nuns and call them penguins. And, so the other criticism of Bojo's comments that they encourage racism and Islamophobia, are also baseless. It is exactly the same kind of argument that Whitehouse and co, used to use against sex, and violence on TV, i.e. that it somehow made others act out such acts of sex and violence that they otherwise would not have done. 

If we are to limit free speech on the basis that some idiot somewhere might listen to your words, and act on them in some kind of extreme way, then we might as well abandon any concept of free expression straight away. People do not become serial killers, because they watch a TV drama about serial killers; they do not become rapists because they see a film that depicts rape; and they do not become Islamophobic because Boris Johnson describes women wearing Burkas as looking like letter boxes! A few individuals who already had a propensity to such things might use a film, a drama, a computer game, or a speech to justify their actions, but none of those things are the cause of their actions, witnessed by the simple fact that millions of other people did not act in that way. 

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, there was an upsurge in racist incidents. But, it was not the Brexit vote that created a load of racists who undertook those actions. The racists were already there, they simply utilised the Brexit vote as a means of justifying their existing racist beliefs and inclinations. Those of us who oppose Brexit warned that it would encourage those racists in that way, which is one reason we opposed and oppose Brexit, but it would be ridiculous to conclude from that that people should have been prevented from expressing their opinion, and having a vote over Brexit! I think that they made a mistake in voting for Brexit, and I want that vote to be overturned, preferably by calling a General Election, where Labour stands clearly on a policy of scrapping Brexit, but that is completely different to saying that those who want to Leave the EU should be prevented from expressing their opinions for fear that it might lead some racist nutcases to undertake racist attacks! 

Its time for socialists, liberals and modernists to stand up to the growing religious and moral intolerance in Britain, that is utilising charges of racism, Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism etc. as a means of shutting down debate and criticism. It is time that the idea that freedom of expression does not extend to the right to offend is challenged. Freedom of expression is only meaningful of it does extend to the right to offend, and those who are offended, have to simply recognise that that is the price of living in a free society. 


Amanda said...

Of course if a comedian said it it could be dismissed but when a politician articulates it it is frankly enabling and as you point out a dog whistle. If we can criticise people based on their articles of clothing as political rhetoric we are regressive and creating further space for neo-feudalist strictures that are apparent in the economic sphere. The underlying idea is for monoculture, uniformity and self-policing. Diversity is evolutionary advantage, and also cultural enrichment.

Boffy said...

I am actually in favour of monoculture, but a monoculture does not mean uniformity, it means that each person is free to develop their own individuality within it. The concept of multiculturalism is conservative. It implies that all existing cultures are things that should be protected, and defended alongside each other. But, all existing cultures are the cultures of oppressive, paternalistic ruling classes. They were developed, precisely as means of establishing taboos and traditions that kept the ruling paternalistic elites in power, by forcing the oppressed to self-police themselves, and to abide by oppressive rules, regulations, rituals and so on, saving the ruling class having to use force to ensure compliance.

As a Marxist I have no interest whatsoever in defending or justifying existing cultures that have been developed to ensure the continued oppression of the masses. Its no coincidence that the burka, the nun's habit, and the bride's wedding dress complete with face veil, are all similar. They are the product of thousands of years oppressive paternalistic ruling classes that established such ritualistic clothing as part of their oppressive attitude to women, who were thereby reduced to the level of chattels, and justified by religious customs, based upon religious texts themselves written by male hierarchies. The same is true about the shared hostility to homsoexuality in all religions, and so on.

The sooner all of these existing cultures are swept away the better as far as I am concerned, because they are all slave cultures, that reflect our ongoing status as oppressed masses subordinated to paternalistic ruling elites.

I am in favour of a monoculture, but a monoculture that is based upon the culture of a global, working-class, striving towards socialism. In place of the existing slave cultures that multiculturalism seeks to protect, because those that promote it are tied to defending the existing social system, but merely tinkering with it, I am in favour of an internationalist, liberationist, socialist monoculture that reflects and promotes our liberation from existing forms of oppression and subordination. It is the monoculture of the global working-class we should promote and develop, and all of the potential for individual diversity within that creates.

George Carty said...

Why does the media use the word "burka" incorrectly?

Bojo's comment likening women to letterboxes is clearly referring to the niqab – the word "burqa" (note the spelling!) refers to two garments (the Afghan head-to-toe garment with a mesh covering the face, or the Emirati veil with a metal framework) both of which (unlike the niqab) are worn by almost no Muslim women in the West.

(Incidentally, when Muslims themselves joke about the appearance of women in niqab, they usually liken them to ninjas – I guess they like that as it is an "empowering" stereotype that contrasts with the "oppressed Muslim woman" one?)

When you liken Islamic clothing to the nun's habit and the wedding dress and describe all of them as signifying an "oppressive attitude to women", are you attacking the institution of marriage itself? I don't see marriage as the product of class exploitation, but I do see it as being intended to maintain a gendered division of labour that is arguable obsolete in today's world: on the female side because modern medicine means that women no longer need to bear large numbers of children just to ensure that two survive to adulthood, and on the male side because the superior physical strength of men is less and less relevant economically (as physical work is now done almost entirely by heat engines of various kinds rather than by muscles). The purpose of religious prohibtions on homosexuality and premarital sex is to harness men's sexual urges to force them to provide for women and children.

The invention of the animal-drawn plough was probably key to the rise of patriarchy, as it required a man's superior physical strength to guide it correctly: one can usefully contrast pagan tropical Africa with the Islamic world.

In tropical Africa there were no draught animals (as the tsetse fly would kill them: the Boers later discovered that to their cost when they attempted to settle north of the Limpopo river). Women did most of the hard farm labour using hoes (with men in those societies being notoriously lazy) and adultery was tolerated

By contrast, in the Islamic societies to the north (where animal-drawn ploughs were used) the religion explicitly makes it a man's duty to provide for his family and adultery is a capital crime!