The (identity) politics of ‘free’ speech

Boris Johnson’s now infamous article in the Telegraph regarding Denmark’s decision to ban the wearing of the burka and the niqab appears to have ignited yet again the whole question of  how far one can go in a ‘free’ society in expressing views that are bound to offend at least one social group if not more.1

The Johnson article is interesting on a number of levels, not least because it appears to be highlighting the bitter divisions within the Conservative party as much as those in the country as a whole.  In many ways it seems to represent ‘Brexit by proxy’, in the sense that it has become a conflict between the liberal/crypto-Blairite (‘Remainer’) wing of the party, who oppose both Johnson’s article and the idea of him as a potential replacement for Teresa May, and the right-wing/nationalist (‘Brexiteer’) wing, who both (broadly) support the article and would love to see their man in Number 10.

Not surprising, perhaps, there are contradictions on both sides of the argument.  In his article Johnson claims to be opposing the ban on the burka being introduced by the Danish government, whilst as the same time ridiculing the women who wear it.   On the other side of the argument, those who have been very critical of Johnson’s article, Muslim and non-Muslim, male and female, seem to be circumventing the fact that the wearing of the burka has often been criticised as an example of Muslim patriarchy.  Brendan O’Neill raises this point in a typically scathing fashion:

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. 2

But perhaps the key point here is not whether Johnson’s remarks were offensive to some people; clearly they were and quite probably were meant to be.  Rather, it’s whether in a democratic and nominally ‘free’ society one has the right to offend others; and, more to the point, to what extent.  In other words, is there a limit to ‘free’ speech, and if so, what is it?

Clearly, the answer to the first question is yes, there is a limit.  There is probably no society on earth where one can say exactly what one likes without being sanctioned for it.  The question is, though, how are such boundaries to ‘free’ speech defined – and by whom?

It would seem to be too simplistic to argue that you can say what you like – as long as you don’t offend anyone.  On the other hand, there does appear to be some truth in this, in the sense that there are particular groups of people in society you offend at your peril.  And by this I am not necessarily just thinking of the rich and powerful.  Rather, I’m thinking more about those individuals and groups in society who may in fact have very little power and influence, but who at the same time may have powerful and influential allies.  And these are not only the “…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” referred to by O’Neill in his article.  There are also several (Tory) peers, many MPs of all parties, and the Muslim Council of Britain just to name but a few.

Of course, there is a great deal of political opportunism involved here for both critics and supporters of Johnson.  However, for me there is also a potentially more worrying question, and this has to do with what one might describe as the ‘identity politics of offence’.  In other words, to what extent do those individuals and groups who take issue with remarks such as Johnson’s feel genuinely aggrieved at a very personal level; in fact, to what extent are such offensive remarks (in their eyes at least) posing a genuine threat to their sense of identity?  And I’m not just talking about the women who actually wear the burka and niqab (who statistically are in a small minority) but all those who are championing their cause (or who think they are).

But how can this be the case?  How can it be that people who’s freedom is definitely not restricted, who are definitely not (overtly) oppressed, come to feel that their identity, their place in the world, their very being even, is under threat from individuals or groups who make offensive remarks about individuals or groups whose interests they hold dear to their hearts?

Of course, one explanation is that they are themselves identifying with those groups and individuals who are the target of the offence, who are the victims. There may indeed be some truth in this, but perhaps an even more fundamental  explanation is that the less one’s actual existence, one’s actual freedom, is under threat, the more one’s sense of identity is called into question.  And the key point to remember here is that in Lacanian terms, the question of identity is located in the Imaginary register (although there is also a critical Symbolic dimension to it as well).

One the useful functions of external threats, that is, from other people who are ‘them’ rather than ‘us’, is that they help define who ‘we’ are in the first place.   In other words, the ‘enemy’ helps define the boundaries of individual and group identity.  But what if there is no (or very little) external threat or constraint?  What if we really are free?  Herein lies what might be define as the ‘curse of liberal democracy’: (too much) freedom, too little constraint, can lead to a desire for its opposite.

In his fascinating book The Management of Normality, Abram de Swaan explores the problem of agoraphobia in the late nineteenth century, which touches on a very similar point.3 De Swaan’s basic argument is that agoraphobia appears on a large scale in late nineteenth century European cities at the very moment when women are able to go out without being chaperoned.   De Swaan argues that this is because the (male) fear of their wives/girlfriends being sexually propositioned by strangers on the street (hence the need to control/monitor the woman’s behaviour outside of the house) has been replaced by the woman’s unconscious anxieties about being sexually compromised whilst out and about.

In this particular case it’s as if the external constraint (male control)  is replaced by an internal one (the agoraphobia).   But another way to look at it is to say that both forms of constraint are serving the same function: to give the woman a sense of boundaries, a sense of who she is.  Of course, it could also be argued that all that’s happened here is that patriarchy has become internalised; in other words, there is no need for men to overtly constrain the movements and behaviour of women anymore because they are doing a better job themselves by becoming ill.  However, I think this still misses the point that such constraints, such boundaries, be they external or internal, also serve an important function in identity formation.

Coming back to the Johnson article, perhaps we can now argue that his ‘offence’ is playing a very useful function for all those liberally minded individuals who are feeling rather lost in their freedom, in their liberal ideology.  Johnson’s remarks about the burka positions him as the ‘enemy’, as the Other, which in turn defines the position of all those champions of the burka and gives them a place in the world.

Of course, this do not preclude the fact that such ‘champions’ may also be ‘identifying with the victim’ (in this case, women who wear the burka).  In fact, simply defining oneself in opposition to the ‘enemy’ is not enough; there still has to be some form of ‘positive’ identification too, and this is where the ‘victimised’ individual or group comes in useful.  Perhaps in the absence of such an ‘external’ threat such ‘champions’ too would become ill, just as in the case of all those late-nineteenth century agoraphobic women.

  1. Johnson, B. (2018) Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that’s still no reason to ban it, The Telegraph, 5 August 2018 []
  2. O’Neill, B. (2018, August 9) Who’s really racist – Boris or his critics?, Spiked. Available from: <> [Accessed 13 August 2018]. []
  3. de Swaan, A. (1990) The Management of Normality: Critical Essays in Health and Welfare. London: Routledge. []

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