Who’s really racist – Boris or his critics?
It is the refusal to criticise certain groups that smacks of racism.
Here’s the strange thing about the Boris/burqa controversy: the very people who constantly kick up a fuss about repressive male behaviour are now up in arms at Boris for talking about repressive male behaviour. The same tweeters and liberals and feminists who have spent the past year of #MeToo cheering the new public conversation about how awful men are now want to shut down a public conversation about the possibility that some Muslim men might be awful too and might be inflicting a repressive culture on women. The same people who think a bloke ever so slightly spreading his legs on the Tube on the way to work is committing the crime of ‘manspreading’ and is proof of the continued existence of the patriarchy refuse to accept that a man putting pressure on his wife to cover herself head to toe in a black cloak might just be a tad patriarchal.
The double standards are staggering. A chattering class that sees patriarchal bullying in everything – from the man who sends a tweet suggesting that a female politician has made a factual error (mansplaining) to the fact that young boys think girls aren’t very good at football (ingrained male entitlement) – refuse to see it in the culture of the burqa. Or at least they refuse to allow an open, frank discussion of the possibility that there is a culture of repression in some Muslim communities. The demonisation of Boris, and the authoritarian efforts to extract a public apology from him for his blasphemy against the burqa, is not driven merely by a distaste for his description of niqab- and burqa-wearers as looking like ‘letterboxes’. It is an effort to chill all strong commentary on this garment and on the question of whether it is a good thing that in 21st-century Britain there are some women – not many, but some – who wear such archaic, anti-social clothing.
Media outlets play their role in shushing any conversation about the repressive culture that exists in some Muslim communities. The BBC and others always wheel on university-educated niqab-wearers who gaily explain that they love their face-blocking veils and in fact view them as feminist garments since they prevent men from ogling the women underneath. So it’s all fine, then. These garments are great. Even empowering. Anyone who believes this is the whole story is kidding themselves, and they know they are. They know that the majority of women who wear these garments didn’t go to Oxford and will never appear on the BBC and instead live in communities, or at least households, in which women are considered second-class citizens and so intensely the property of their husbands that only he may see their face and hair. If another community was treating women like this, there would be uproar. But when it is the Muslim community our feministic elites turn away. ‘The burqa’s great. It is part of their culture. Shut up.’
Is it racist to criticise an entire ethnic or religious group? It can be. It depends on the motivation behind the speaker’s criticisms, and of course on the content of his criticisms. Boris’s comments clearly were not racist because he was only discussing a minority practice within a religious group and he said precisely nothing about people of colour. But here’s the thing: it can also be racist to refuse to criticise certain groups. To hold back your criticisms out of sensitivity or pity. For that is truly to treat these groups by a double standard, and to imply that they are lesser than us somehow, weaker, less reasoned, and therefore incapable of coping with scrutiny. This is the thing: there is more racism in Boris’s detractors than there was in Boris’s comments. It is the racism of relativism, the idea that it is wrong to criticise misogynistic or backward behaviour if it occurs among certain groups. The desire to protect the culture of the niqab or burqa from strong commentary or even jokes is more riddled with paternalism than any criticism of this culture ever could be.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Find him on Instagram: @burntoakboy