Boris Johnson is rarely out of the news.
While commenting on Denmark’s introduction of a ban on full-face veils (such as niqabs and burkhas and following similar bans in France, Belgium and Austria) he rejected the idea that the UK should impose one as well.
However, he said, it was “absolutely ridiculous” that wearers should “go around looking like letter boxes” and “bank robbers”.
Now, I spend much time – both on the pages of this blog and speaking at universities around this country – defending the right of people to make remarks that some might find offensive.
We live in a democracy and a free society where the right to speak one’s opinions and beliefs is a fundamental right.
No-one has the right to be protected from offence. Though I suggest you don’t offend others as a daily matter of course, otherwise you’ll find you have very few friends. Try to reserve offending others to occasions when you are declaring matters of principle.
Free speech necessarily has to be constrained in the interests of all. For example, it is not our right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. That’s not just an ‘offensive’ thing to shout, that puts people’s lives in danger.
Similarly we have decided, through statute, to remove the right of people to abuse, threaten or incite violence or hatred against each other. That’s not just being ‘offensive’ – that’s behaviour that creates real danger to others.
But there are two things that strike me about Boris Johnson’s ‘offensive’ comments.
The first is to describe a style of dress linked to a religious or cultural group - however archaic – as “absolutely ridiculous” and wearers look like “letter boxes” or “bank robbers” is moving closer, in my view, not just to ridiculing the idea but to ridiculing and abusing them as people.
While Johnson has a right to be ‘offensive’ in a free society, as a citizen let alone politician, he also has a duty to choose language that steers clear of ridicule and possible abuse.
Because it is wilfully disrespectful.
It is incumbent upon teachers – and this is my second point – that as part of the Teachers’ Standards they ‘must not undermine democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs’.
Teachers must respect their pupils even if, sometimes, not all those pupils reciprocate.
Politicians must respect their citizens – the voting public - even if sometimes, not all those citizens reciprocate.
Johnson may think that wearers of niqabs and burkhas do not respect the values of modern, western society. I share some of that unease.
Personally, I am uncomfortable with seeing women dressed in niqabs and burhkas. On the occasions I interact with women wearing them, I feel that their act of concealing their face is a wilful suspension of commonly shared values and norms around communicating on a personal level. To me, I find it disrespectful.
But because we live in a democracy with a rule of law, I respect and tolerate the individual liberty of people wearing things I don’t like, and even though I might disrespect the ideaof wearing niqabs and burkhas, the very last thing I would do, Mr Johnson, is disrespect people.