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Has Boris Johnson inadvertently done Us a Favour?

Boris Johnson has been roundly pilloried by the left-leaning press and by socialists and liberals on social media for his comments about burqa-wearing Muslim women looking “ridiculous” because burqas make their wearers look like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”.

But the criticisms have come not just from the left. Theresa May and Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis are among top Tories who have called for Johnson to apologise. The party has received so many complaints, an investigation into whether Johnson’s already- infamous article in the Daily Telegraph has brought the party into disrepute is proposed. Separately some MPs – such as Labour’s Jon Trickett – have called for Johnson to be disciplined for breaking the Ministerial Code (BBC News, 2018d).

Tweet by Amanda Fleiss

In the wake of Johnson’s Telegraph article, there has been a spike in attacks on Muslim women wearing burqas and niqabs – reported by The Independent’s Lizzie Dearden, among others. This tweet by Amanda Fleiss and posted to Facebook by Huddersfield TUC captures the indignity and distress of one such attack.

As reported by The Independent’s Joe Watts (2018b) amongst others, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has demanded that Johnson is subjected to a full disciplinary investigation and that there is no whitewash.

However, several leading Tory backbenchers – most notably Iain Duncan Smith and Jacob Rees-Mogg – have now defended Johnson’s right to say what he did while the Sunday ExpressKate Devlin reports a ComRes poll finding 53% of respondents thought Johnson should not be disciplined and 60% felt freedom of speech was under attack.

The right-wing backlash against attempts to curtail Johnson’s remarks is further exacerbated by Donald Trump’s election mastermind Steve Bannon, who recently met with Johnson and Michael Gove to discuss promoting right wing populism across Europe. Bannon urged Johnson not to “bow at the altar of political correctness” by apologising (Watts).

The Guardian’s Nadia Khomami reports that the MCB’s Harun Rashid Khan has complained that the defence of Johnson by some Tory MPs “has shone a light on the underbelly of Islamophobia that is present within the party”. An inverse reflection of this is that the British National Party (BNP) is reported by the Business Insider’s Adam Bienkov to be endorsing Johnson as the UK’s next prime minister.

Freedom of speech and political correctness
So should Johnson be disciplined for ridiculing and disparaging women wearing the burqa? Or is criticism of his burqa comments simply political correctness gone mad, as Bannon implies?

The polarisation of opinion over Johnson’s comments can be described in Gravesian terms as a PURPLE/blue vMEME harmonic defending Johnson and a blue/GREEN harmonic criticising him.

The GREEN vMEME regards all as equal and worthy, regardless of colour of skin, nationality, ethnicity, culture, religion, etc. Those who are disadvantaged and/or in the minority are to be protected – by the law (where possible) – and developed by education and positive discrimination.

On the other hand PURPLE, with its motivation to find safety-in-belonging, is deeply suspicious of anyone not-of-our-tribe; our tribe is the in-group and all other tribes are out-groups. As Social Identity Theory demonstrates, such simple categorisations as ‘our tribe’ and ‘your tribe’ can produce animosity, conflict and even violence. The easier it is to distinguish who is in our tribe and who is not, the more likely prejudice & discrimination will occur. Superficial differentiators such as colour of skin and cultural dress differences (salwar kameez, burqa, etc) make it easy for the majority in-group to identify and target minority out-groups.

Although it will be deeply unpalatable for those whose thinking is dominated by GREEN, racism is simply an expression of PURPLE tribalism and is, at that level, not unnatural – see: Is Racism Natural..?

In the most simplistic sense, the polarisation is driven by egalitarianism vs tribalism – 2 totally different ways of thinking. So, for those whose thinking is driven by PURPLE, Britain is for ‘indigenous’ Brits and not for non-whites with an ‘alien’ religion. At best, such people should be made to conform to ‘British’ norms and values; at worst, they are inferior, don’t belong and can be discriminated against. Such thinking is anathema to GREEN with its inclusive and egalitarian mindsets.

It’s worth reminding ourselves here of the key part anti-immigration sentiment – and the racism underlying it – is thought to have played in the 2016 EU referendum – see So the Turkeys did vote for Christmas?!?

In more ways than one, the divisions over Johnson’s remarks  – especially amongst the Conservatives – reflect divisions over Brexit. For example, Rees-Mogg and Duncan Smith are Johnson’s fellow arch-Brexiteers. Dominic Grieve, one of the Tories’ leading anti-Brexit rebels, states Johnson is not “a fit and proper person to lead” (Jessica Elgot, The Guardian). The press reflect these divisions too: the Express and the Telegraph support both Johnson and Brexit; The Guardian and The Independent are highly critical of both Johnson and the way the Government is pursuing Brexit.

The issues of racism, immigration and Brexit are inextricably linked.

Time to talk about difficult issues
Back in 2010 I started off the Blog post Is restricting Immigration discriminatory? with the lines “At last, it’s starting to become OK to talk about immigration. Of course, it’s been a hot topic for the British National Party (BNP), their British National Front predecessors and the far right for years – in fact, decades…. ”

Over those decades GREEN thinking had largely succeeded in labelling those who opposed immigration as ‘racist’. Those who were thus labelled were disparaged by the intelligentsia and most of the media. It was ‘not OK’ to talk about the problems immigration brought and the issues around acculturation. (Acculturation is about how and in what ways immigrants do or don’t integrate into the majority host culture.) The UK was to become multi-cultural, with Indian, Chinese, Pakistani and Caribbean norms and values to be just as valued as much as white British – if not more so, to achieve positive discrimination.

The memes that ‘foreigners’ were taking ‘our jobs’ and threatening ‘our way of life’ only spread further as the New International Division of Labour transferred the jobs of the white working class overseas, the expansion of the EU introduced more (Eastern European) immigrants into the UK and the right-wing press lurched ever further to the right in the years after Margaret Thatcher.

It was only the growing popularity and European electoral successes of the BNP in the 2000s that really forced immigration and multiculturalism onto the political agendas. Even then there was little serious attempt by the Coalition and Conservative governments to tackle immigration and the broader issues it  created and which, to some extent, Enoch Powell had forecast back in his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech back in 1968. Ironically it was Theresa May as Home Secretary who repeatedly announced self-imposed targets to reduce immigration and then failed to meet them. The Government seemed content to let the right-wing press blame the EU and ‘freedom of movement’ for its own incompetence and failures.

Despite multiculturalism failing as a social philosophy – see David Cameron’s right about Multiculturalism BUT… – there was even less effort put into the broader issues of acculturation and integration of those who were second and third generation descended from immigrants.

As discussed in How the Plutocrats are waging War on the Bureaucrats…, the Government’s failure to address the concerns of the so-called ‘left behind’ allowed the plutocrats and their Elite lackeys to manipulate the media to make immigration a key issue in the 2016 referendum.

Ongoing failure to address acculturation issues and the way people from all communities feel about them and to devise appropriate mid-to-longer-term policies and strategies allows opportunistic manipulators like Boris Johnson to exploit PURPLE fears about those who are ‘different’. Driven by a RED/orange harmonic and almost certainly high in the temperamental dimension of Psychoticism, Johnson sees opportunities for self-aggrandisement and is ruthless in pursuit of his own career…but he has little sense of consequences. Johnson is perceived by many of his fellow Tories to be positioning himself for an Autumn leadership bid by empathising with the hard right who do have a notable presence amongst party activists and thus could sway a leadership election. For example, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has called Johnson out, saying: “This wasn’t an off-the-cuff slip, he wrote a column, he knew exactly what he was doing….” Just as he has pursued – and is still pursuing an economically-disastrous Brexit in pursuit of his own career, Johnson appears willing to stoke Islamophobia and trash 5 decades of improving race relations.

Johnson is a highly-dangerous man…but the UK’s increasingly-fragile cultural interfaces could be even more at risk if Johnson, Gove and their like facilitate the entrance of Steve Bannon into British politics.

However, there may be some real benefits to come from the mini-crisis Johnson has instigated.

A week ago (9 August) Patrick Duffy, Chairman of the South-West Wiltshire Conservative Association, was asked on Newsnight for his views on the controversy surrounding Johnson’s burqa comments. His very measured response was highly interesting. While he stated unequivocally that he couldn’t endorse Johnson’s language, he did throw up the suggestion that the issue needed to be raised: how people felt about what the burqa symbolised: an ethnic minority community living with some very different norms and values that could seem very threatening to the majority. Duffy was showing that he understood PURPLE concerns. In a roundabout way, he suggested that Johnson had done us a favour by putting the kingdom into a position where it could now discuss something it previously had not been able to – due, indeed, to GREEN-driven political correctness

I’m inclined to agree. Johnson’s RED has shot a hole in the GREEN orthodoxy inhibiting discussion  of acculturation issues. By engaging fully with acculturation issues, we minimise the ability of the plutocrats and their Elite lackeys in the media to manipulate the kingdom.

There is a conversation to be had.

Muslims and UK society
As I discussed in Islamification: Europe’s Challenge, the growing number of Muslims in the UK and other European countries means their political voices need to be heard through the conventional political systems. If their voices aren’t heard in these ways, then they become marginalised and vulnerable to radicalisation.

No politicians, to my knowledge, are yet talking about – much less envisioning – what the UK might be like when 20-25% of the population are Muslim (to some degree or other). There are no public discussions about what level of integration there should be ideally or how to achieve it. There are no public discussions about how the white/non-Muslim majority can be reassured that their children’s futures will not be under Sharia law – which some of the more extreme anti-Islam groups (Britain First, the English Defence League, etc) would have us believe is a real likelihood.

In this respect, Johnson inadvertently may have actually have done us a favour if his burqa comments do kickstart such discussions.

Unless the UK is going to have a Nazi-style fascist government prepared to commit genocide upon our Muslim population – and, how ever much some of the most extreme white supremacists might relish such a prospect, it’s not going to happen – then we have what we have. There is no ‘sending back’ 3rd or 4th generation Pakistani-heritage Muslims – legally and by birthright they are citizens of the UK as much as any white Christian Briton.

As a walk-down any town centre high street tells us – with its curry houses, kebab shops, Chinese takeaways, etc – the UK has changed massively since the 1950s. Given the fact that such eating places could not survive without significant white patronage, it’s not unreasonable to assume that most white Britons are not too ‘uncomfortable’ with the changes immigration has brought – even if many are not totally ‘comfortable’ with them. That in itself is indicative of the need to have a conversation.

Don Beck’s Assimilation-Contrast Effect – developed by applying Spiral Dynamics to Muzafir Sherif’s Social Judgement Theory – shows us that the moderates on both sides engaging with each other and looking to work together in the common interest, effectively isolates and dis-empowers the extremists.

At the end of the day, most communities want the same thing: employment producing income, reasonable housing, access to effective healthcare and good education, little or no crime, social and criminal justice, freedom to practice your religion, etc, etc. As Sherif’s Robber’s Cave study demonstrated, working together reduces inter-group tension. As Eva Telzer et al (2012) demonstrated from fMRI scans of amygdala activity, familiarity between different ethnic groups reduces fear responses.

But to get that working together and to develop familiarity, there has to be engagement – there has to be a conversation.

And it also has to be accepted that there will never be a perfect racially/ethnically-harmonious nirvana. Changing life conditions will always produce problems – Ichak Adizes (1996) proposes that it’s normal to have problems and that the only people without problems are dead people! Under pressure, PURPLE tends to drive people into tribalism with its in-group/out-group effect – so it needs to be recognised that inter-group relations will always need monitoring and adjustments made.

But the starting point is for the moderates to start the conversation and take the issues around Islam, burqas and whatever else out of the hands of the extremists.

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One Response

  1. David Burnby says

    The major thing I take from this piece is the difficulty we have in discussing anything to do with immigration and/or multi-culturalism without attracting a label. Any suggestion that women might be different to men labels you sexist. As we are seeing writ large, anyone in the Labour party even suggesting that the Israeli government is acting unreasonably is instantly labelled an anti-Semite. Johnson is labelled ‘Islamophobic’.

    So I take your point that Johnson’s dim-witted observations about the Burqa has surfaced the agenda, but I don’t see it as positive. In the same way Corbyn has been pilloried, the comments about Johnson have been taken out of context and sensationalised thus trivialising discussion to the level of tabloid headlines. You reprise your headline from an old blog “Is restricting immigration discriminatory” with the quote “At last, it’s starting to become OK to talk about immigration. Of course, it’s been a hot topic for the British National Party (BNP), their British National Front predecessors and the far right for years – in fact, decades…. ”

    This suggests that members of far right parties indulge in intellectual, informed debate about immigration. It’s the left that has been having these debates for decades. The far right simply stokes its prejudice and white supremacy with racist insults and offensive actions which does not constitute talking about immigration.

    So I agree it has to be OK to talk about multi-culturalism and immigration. The challenge is how to engage non-political activists in an informed and rational debate that stretches beyond the tabloid headlines. That means studying the issues to the level you do in writing this blog. As a nation we are lazy about politics and have a short attention span. Perhaps as a nation that hasn’t suffered from foreign occupation since 1066 we’re all too comfortable and don’t understand political struggle. Perhaps in school we don’t teach kids to think, question and challenge.

    It’s depressing that discussion around anti-Semitism and Islam is limited to why the Leader of the Labour Party laid a wreath in a Tunisian cemetery six years ago and derogatory comments by the Tory’s class clown about women who choose the wear the burqa. All of course a wonderful smokescreen to cover Brexit incompetence; the Windrush scandal; rail chaos; the housing crisis and the fact that the Israeli government is kicking the crap out of Palestinians.