[Written by Francesca Di Fazio]
[Image Credits: Original image by Ferdinand Stohr (accessed through Unsplash). Edits by Florence Bridgman]
It is a sort of paradox that while we live in the hyper-technological Information Age, we seem no longer capable of handling communication. We have more access than ever before to knowledge, literacy, freedom of expression, and yet we still fall for fake news, propaganda and political strongmen showing illiberal tendencies. Some of the most prominent world leaders in today’s democratic countries have built their electoral fortunes on the ideological battle between free speech and political correctness. Meanwhile, the official sanction of derogatory rhetoric towards minorities and vulnerable groups involved in this kind of campaigning style has impacted the day-to-day lives of individuals. But are politicians right to defend what they consider our values in the face of cultural differences? Is free speech really endangered by political correctness? And where do we draw the line between freedom of expression and discrimination? To answer, we need to look closer to contemporary identity politics.
During the latest general election campaign, incumbent PM Boris Johnson has refused to apologise for comparing Muslim women wearing the niqāb – the garment covering the whole body except for the eyes, often mistakenly conflated with the burqa – to “letter boxes” in a 2018 article written for The Telegraph. The context of those words, Johnson pointed out, was “a strong liberal defence of the right of women to wear the burqa”. He wasn’t lying. His article really criticised the decision of some European countries to impose a total ban on the niqāb and the burqa, although Johnson personally deems such garments as “oppressive” and the choice to wear them as “ridiculous” – hence the “letter boxes” comment – and supports the right of public authorities and private employers to enforce their dress code in professional settings. Johnson carefully crafted his style and tone to fit into the Western liberal tradition and its fundamental tension between individual freedom and the bias for Western modern ways of life – emerging clearly, for example, from Francis Fukuyama’s thought on identity politics. This is the key to Johnson’s rhetoric: it is calculated to sound more ironic than overtly aggressive so as to remain in the boundaries of free speech. By this, I don’t mean to defend his use of highly derogatory expressions, nor to deny that his language reveals classist, racist, homophobic and misogynistic attitudes. Actually, while Johnson’s intentions were being discussed in the press, his words bore grim consequences on the very people whose liberty he claimed to defend. His communicative strategy is complex exactly because it plays with the fine line between ironic free speech and consequential hate speech with an ambiguity that many of his counterparts lack.
What makes this type of rhetoric so insidious is precisely that it can’t be condemned as illiberal. On the contrary, as I said, it is very liberal, in the most specific, historical sense of the term. It uses liberal values, like freedom of expression, gender equality or secularism, to perpetuate injustice. Within the European context, feminism is a case in point. The French far-right leader Marine Le Pen has found the occasion to co-opt the argument for women’s rights in her anti-immigration campaign. The Conservatives have also played the feminist rhetoric card, in the face of evidence that their government hasn’t done much for women, quite the opposite. And, unsurprisingly, Boris Johnson himself has demonstrated that his sympathy for women knows exceptions, especially following class lines. Overall, our political leaders seem very committed to the language of minority rights, much less to effectively ensuring the substance of those rights.
In the age of social media and mass communication, simply decrying the consequences of politicians’ words, however loudly, is useless. Instead, it might be worth reflecting on how these leaders’ rhetoric strategies differ among themselves, with some just shattering the boundaries of freedom of expression and others stretching them to the extreme in order to remain sheltered from accountability when consequences emerge in the real world. It is fundamental to maintain a critical attitude, even when it means to interrogate our own values and the use that some political figures try to make of them. It is possible to protect the rights of everyone, without sacrificing freedom of expression in the process. Don’t let any strongman playing the popular hero tell you otherwise.