As a writer, I know that words hold power. And I know that I hold power in the choices I make about how to use them.
Writers do not choose their words recklessly; they do so with intent. Which is why Boris Johnson’s recent comments on the burka, in an article he wrote for the Daily Telegraph, must be called out.
As an experienced politician and journalist, Johnson treads a fine linguistic line. Check out his article online and the headline moderates the content – “Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that’s still no reason to ban it.” Islamophobic? Well, he can’t be, can he? It’s not like he wants it BANNED!
But maybe the controversy isn’t over whether Boris is Islamophobic. Maybe the point of real concern is over how a senior politician in the UK chooses to use language in the public sphere to stoke fear, division and discontent, to serve his own political purposes.
Take a second to look at the language he uses – the burka is “oppressive and ridiculous”, dangerous and laughable all at the same time, feeding fear and stoking disdain for a cultural minority while attempting to make himself seem perfectly reasonable.
I know Johnson probably didn’t write his own headline. But it’s not the headline that has caught the media, and consequently the public, attention. It’s the content of the article, comparing the burka to “a bank robber” and “a letterbox”. Same effect. It is both dangerous and laughable, all at the same time. Feeding fear and stoking disdain.
Truth be told, they’re not great similes – they don’t stack up. People in burkas look like bank robbers? When did you last see any news coverage of a bank robbery involving a thief in a burka? A quick internet trawl throws up just one example of an attempted bank robbery in the UK by a man in a burka, in Oadby in 2015 . No one was injured and nothing got stolen. The incident is briefly referenced in this 2017 Channel 4 Factcheck article, published in response to UKIP’s policy to ban the burka due to the “increased security threat”. The Factcheck finds no statistical evidence to support the idea that burkas are a security risk and quotes a former officer from Scotland Yard’s Anti-Terrorist Squad, David Videcette:
And letterboxes? Well UK letterboxes tend to be red, whereas burkas are usually black. You could argue that the soldiers who stand outside Buckingham Palace in their red uniforms bear more resemblance to a letterbox than a woman in a burka. But it’s a carefully chosen image by Boris. Rooted in ridicule – ‘look at them, how ridiculous they are, like walking postboxes!’ – while drawing attention to the slit where the eyes of the wearer can be seen (which is the only point on which any comparison between the burka and a letterbox can be made, as far as I can see). Clever by Boris, because while making people laugh at this ridiculous garment, he feeds back into the image of the covered face, the hidden identity, injecting the fear with a second, subconscious, shot.
And the media coverage picks up Johnson’s jovial, funny comparisons and social media comes alive with people repeating them, sharing in the ridicule of the women who choose to wear them, sharing in the disdain of the culture they assume is behind them, sharing their fears which have been legitimized and stoked by a senior politician with no attempt at rationality or reassurance.
And women wearing burkas and niqabs and hijabs on our streets increasingly become targets for fear-fuelled racist abuse, targets for verbal and physical attacks because of the clothes they are wearing. They become the clothes they wear – they are oppressed and ridiculous, because Boris says so, we say so, without asking them or hearing their voices.
Of course, Boris took a punt and aligned his political career with the success of Brexit. Public support for Brexit rests on fear of the other, inter-cultural suspicion. In the wake of recent media coverage on the potential catastrophic effects of a No-Deal Brexit, an experienced journalist and senior Brexit-aligned politician writes an article stoking up fear and ridicule of a cultural minority, feeding public opinion.
As a writer, Boris knows that words hold power. And he knows that he holds power in the choices he makes about how to use them. Apologise for his words? I suspect they’re working exactly the way he intended them to…