British Conservative Member of Parliament Boris Johnson was criticized for a joke about burkas he made last week in a column on recent enforcement of Denmark’s “Burka Ban.”
The law effectively bans women from wearing traditional Muslim head coverings in public, such as a burqa or niqab, by making it illegal to obscure one’s face with a garment or accessory in public. Similar bans are already in place in other European countries, and Denmark passed this one in May, but enforced it for the first time last week, prompting Johnson’s column in The Telegraph.
He spoke out strongly against the ban, but compared women in Muslim garb to “bank robbers” and “letterboxes,” and said it’s perfectly reasonable to expect them to remove the coverings in certain contexts.
“What has happened, you may ask, to the Danish spirit of live and let live?” he wrote, noting that it should be the right of a university lecturer, politician, or person of authority to ask a person to uncover their face so they could converse properly, and that business owners and private citizens should certainly have the right to refuse service or entry to a covered person. Johnson dismissed the idea of banning a “Free-born adult woman” from wearing a covering when simply minding her own business in public, but also joked they might be mistaken for “bank robbers” and “letterboxes.”
His joke about their clothing didn’t land, although he was defending their right to wear the garb, and his comments were quickly condemned by many as racist, thoughtless, and harmful. One fan, however, immediately came to his defense.
Rowan Atkinson, an English comedian and actor best known for his roles in “Blackadder,” “Mr. Bean,” and “Johnny English,” defended Johnson’s joke as quite good in a letter to The Times:
Sir, As a lifelong beneficiary of the freedom to make jokes about religion, I do think that Boris Johnson’s joke about wearers of the burka resembling letterboxes is a pretty good one. An almost perfect visual simile and a joke that, whether Mr Johnson apologises for it or not, will stay in the public consciousness for some time to come. All jokes about religion cause offence, so it’s pointless apologising for them. You should really only apologise for a bad joke. On that basis, no apology is required.
Atkinson has previously defended free expression in England. In 2012 he spoke on behalf of a campaign calling for reform of a law that gave police the power to arrest someone who may be insulting another person.
Arrests in the UK on the basis of “insults” were becoming more frequent, including of a man who held up a sign calling scientology a “cult”, and of a man who called a police horse “gay”. In the face of a quickly burgeoning public panic about what could be construed as offensive, Atkinson delivered an impassioned speech about the right to freely express oneself.
Here’s a transcript:
The reasonable and well intentioned ambition to contain obnoxious elements in society, has created a society of an extraordinarily authoritarian and controlling nature, what you might call ‘The new intolerance.’
A new but intense desire to gag uncomfortable voices of dissent. ‘I’m not intolerant’ say many people; say many, softly-spoken, highly-educated, liberal-minded people, ‘I’m only intolerant of intolerance’ and people tend to nod sagely and say ‘Oh yes. Wise words, wise words.’ And yet if you think about this supposedly inarguable statement for more than five seconds you realize that all it is advocating is the replacement of one kind of intolerance with another, which to me doesn’t represent any kind of progress at all.
Underlying prejudices, injustices, or resentments are not addressed by arresting people. They are addressed by the issues being aired, argued, and dealt with, preferably outside the legal process. For me, the best way to increase society’s resistance to insulting or offensive speech is to allow a lot more of it. As with childhood diseases, you can better resist those germs to which you have been exposed. We need to build our immunity to taking offense so that we can deal with the issues that perfectly justified criticism can raise. Our priority should be to deal with the message, not the messenger.
As President Obama said in an address to the United Nations only a month or so ago, ‘Laudable efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics or oppress minorities. The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech.’ And that’s the essence of my thesis: More speech. If we want a robust society we need more robust dialogue and that must include the right to insult or to offend.”
Shortly after this speech, reform was approved by Parliament removing the word “Insult” from the law going into effect in 2014.
Likewise, Johnson has so far heeded the advice of Atkinson, offering no apology for his joke, even in the face of widespread criticism from his own party and an investigation into his conduct. While Johnson is rightly held to a higher standard of conduct as a member of Parliament, Atkinson’s point holds true in his case.
Speech cannot be curtailed to fit perfectly into a “one-size-fits-all” world. We cannot go forth afraid to be insulted, or to inadvertently insult those around us. We can only grow through discussion, and it’s even okay to laugh at a good joke.