A brief guide to who you can and can’t criticise

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Former editor of “The Spectator”, Mayor of London and Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has been at the centre of controversy for his remarks about burqas and how they remind him of letterboxes. Over the following days he has been branded bigoted, fascist, racist, sexist and Islamophobic; if he still held any significant public positions he no doubt would have been called on to resign. In the latest development, the Muslim Council of Britain has written to the Prime Minister requesting Boris be subjected to a “full disciplinary inquiry” for not liking burqas, because “No one should be allowed to victimise minorities with impunity”. As Brendan O’Neill remind us, Johnson actually said that women should not be told what they can or can’t wear in public – so he was “victimising minorities” by defending their right to wear their clothes of choice – he just doesn’t like the dress and what it represents. This seems to be the very traditional definition of toleration: I don’t like what you’re wearing but I will defend to my political death your right to wear it. The promoters of the “new tolerance” seem to be under the impression, however, that to be tolerant one has to approve and applaud.

Many of those who defended Johnson’s right to express an opinion pointed out that criticising and joking about religion has been a part and parcel of of our societies since the Enlightenment and that since Christianity is routinely subjected to this sort of treatment why should other religions be protected and immune?

This is a very liberal view that is based on equal treatment – not just of religions, but also cultures, genders, sexualities, ethnicities and other groups.

The reason we’re having this current burqa controversy – and so many others – is of course because a large part of the society, and perhaps the majority of the opinion shaping class, subscribe to a completely different view. You can call it a socialist or Marxist view. It argues that we cannot have an equal treatment of groups because the groups are in fact not equal. It’s all about power: some groups have it, others don’t. Some groups are dominant, others are downtrodden and oppressed. You can always criticise, attack and mock those who have power, never those who don’t. This is why supposedly only white people can be racist and you cannot be racist against white people. This is also why you can joke all you want about Christianity but never about Islam. What the left is saying in effect is: tell me where a particular group is in the power structure of society and I’ll tell you want you can and cannot say about that group.

Liberals often accuse socialists of hypocrisy and double standards (“you can say all the nasty things about men, but when someone says anything about women they’re sexist and misogynistic”) without quite grasping the left’s conceptual framework and understanding¬† its internal logic. To successfully counter leftists views you need to start unpacking and challenging the premises on which they are built: the whole Marxist concept of perpetual group struggle, seeing groups as monoliths and their members as identical widgets, the reality of the supposed power and powerlessness in our society, the relevance of historical experience for the present, and finally the motives – the left, despite all its rhetoric, is not about achieving equality for those without power, it’s about achieving domination; it’s about taking the power away from the dominant groups and exacting revenge on them for their past sins. Know thy enemy means not just knowing who they are but also how they think.

P.S. A perspective from Janet Albrechtsen in “The Australian”: “He said the burka was oppressive but said that he loved freedom more than he loathed the burka. Once upon a time that would have been a nice fit with the Conservative party‚Äôs manifesto.”

P.P.S. As I’m constantly being tapped for overgeneralising about “the left” as thought that too was a monolith, please read my earlier piece about activists and supporters.

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