On Boris, burkas and the quest for unity
One of my favourite lines is from the Russian writer Mikhail Bakhtin:
“My voice gives the illusion of unity to what I say.”
I reckon you could write a book on that sentence alone. There is so much in it and so much it can be applied to.
It immediately makes me think of someone talking confidently, perhaps on TV, maybe with a presenter deferring to them as an expert. They feel comfortable, at ease, and this is reflected in their voice, which is clear, calm and authoritative. In order to get on to the sofa in the first place, their voice probably had to sound this way. In order to enter into the situation of being deferred to, to be treated as an authority in front of millions of people, they had to look and sound the part of someone who knows what’s going on. They had to fit in with this sort of situation of people who go on TV and talk confidently about things.
There is a sort of unity in this situation: of the authoritative voice matching up with the deference of the presenter on a platform where they can speak freely, without contest, to more people than they could ever hope to meet in a lifetime.
In the line that I like so much, Bakhtin refers to an ‘illusion’ of unity, but of ‘what I say’. In this situation, the person speaking confidently and being treated as an expert appears authoritative pretty much whatever they say. As long as they appear confident and don’t mix up their words and at least attempt to refer to the subject matter, it all hangs together somehow.
In a sense this is an ‘illusion’. But in another there is a real form of unity here – an existential unity. There is an alignment between the person speaking and the environment around him or her. There may also be a unity between what they are saying and what they are talking about, i.e. a truthful relation, but this isn’t necessary to the existential sort of unity.
How does this relate to Boris Johnson and his comments about the burka, on how “Muslim head-gear that obscures the female face… looking like letterboxes… like a bank robber…is absolutely ridiculous”, you might ask?
My interest is more in the reaction to Boris’ comments. I substantially agree with Claire Fox, who calls his comments “crass” and says “I am no fan of BoJo-style private school wit”, but laments the hysterical reaction as highly damaging for the cause of free speech, not least in how it stops us from speaking about important things that concern us if that might involve criticising Muslims. As an example of that reaction, you only need to read the words of Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the government quango the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), who said, “Boris Johnson’s use of language in this instance, which risks dehumanising and vilifying Muslim women, is inflammatory and divisive.” (Notice the strong words there: ‘dehumanising’, ‘vilifying’, ‘inflammatory’, ‘divisive’, words that we might justifiably apply to the burka itself in the way it serves in public space.)
Much of the political liberal-left, representatives of Muslims and anti-Brexit Tories jumped in with similarly strong language. Accusations of ‘racism’ and ‘fascism’ were thrown around with abandon, and senior people including Theresa May have demanded he apologise for the offence caused.
All of this noise achieved a sort of unity which transcended the meaning of the words of the accusations themselves. The classic accusation that Boris was being ‘racist’ for example is absurd. Boris was talking about a specific garment worn under a particular – and particularly strict – strain of a religion. However his accusers said this didn’t matter and there was a higher truth, that he was blowing a ‘dog-whistle’ for racists and fascists, that he was a racist beforehand so that must mean his comments here were racist too.
And here we start that familiar and depressing descent from the actual truth to an ideological truth – a higher truth that may not match the actual truth but which gives a much more unified view of the world.
It all felt right: the politicians, the EHRC chief and Muslim ‘community leaders’ made their assertions and others took on their messages, passed them on to others as truthful, and so the whole thing built up into a crescendo of crashing rhetoric with virtually no interest in or relation to Boris’ own words.
This is a classic example of what I have called in my book, ‘the system of diversity’ in action. It aligns with a progressive story of history, of things improving over time as people who say things that do not fit into the system are removed from public life. Everything that gets in the way must be removed one way or another: by stopping people from speaking, by denying them employment and potentially in other ways too.
This is the path we are on. Hopefully my book The Tribe helps to explain it in more detail.
The Tribe: the liberal-left and the system of diversity is available for £12 (RRP £14.95) with free postage to UK addresses. Use coupon TRIBE at imprint.co.uk/tribe. It is also available via online retailers.
Comments so far include the following:
“a wonderfully lucid and convincing book”
~ Professor Robert Tombs, author of The English and Their History
‘searing’, ‘daring’ and ‘pioneering’ ~ Spiked
“a must read for anyone who is trying to make sense of the issues and fault lines in UK politics today.” ~ All in Britain
“superb, timely, well-written and excellently researched” ~ Amazon reviewer
“one of the most important books of our time” ~ another Amazon reviewer