Free speech, Johnson, Bannon and opposing the new normal

What is wrong with backing that nice cuddly Rowan Atkinson? The effervescent, charismatic Boris Johnson? Quite a lot really. I really hope Atkinson is simply mistaken in defending Johnson, rather than actively backing the ideology peddled by the aspirant Prime Minister.

TL:DR – Johnson’s remarks are a deliberate ploy to normalise offensive speech against so-called ‘immigrants’, anyone who looks different for ‘us’. It’s not acceptable, and it is certainly not funny.

Johnson met with Steve Bannon a few days back. This was well reported. What do we know about Bannon, apart from being that ugly guy Trump sacked after he won the election for him? Quite a lot actually: Bannon makes no secret of his beliefs.

Before Bannon was a political ideologue, he was a film-maker, even an auteur – much as Trump was a television personality and Johnson a journalist. The Independent ran an interesting summary of Bannon’s film work back in February 2017, which points to his skill with narrative, with characterisation of the hero, the importance of staging. The man is expert producer, whether it involves chipped mugs of tea or straightforward lying about the size of the crowd.

And he has an ideology, deeply rooted in the intellectual tradition of right-wing, conservative Catholicism. Yes, he is religious, Traditionalist in the sense of various French and Italian thinkers you (and I) had never heard of before he came to the fore. He is not simply a money-grabbing dynast, though he clearly knows how to use one when he comes into his hand. Bannon is an unashamed nationalist, believing that the rise of nationalism (Russia, Egypt, the UK, America) will promote traditional values. Vanity Fair, in 2017, quotes hims as saying “You have to control three things; borders, currency, and military and national identity.”  Of course, when our national identity rests on a view about free speech, it becomes easy to manipulate us into accepting the unacceptable in its name.

Bannon has also described himself as a Leninist. Salon quoted him saying to conservative philosopher Ronald Radosh in 2014, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”  Despite the nationalism and nihilism, Bannon has global ambitions. He may be out of the White House but he would still seek influence in 10 Downing Street. He travels widely, meeting with people all over the world who will help to advance this destructive, traditional, conservative agenda.

And of course, being anti-immigration is at the heart of this philosophy. American journalist has been studying him for several years, and in 2016 told Vox, that Bannon believes in “the power of demonizing immigrants as a way of motivating grassroots voters. Illegal and legal. …Bannon and Trump amplified it in a way that had a pretty profound effect, and they did it in the wake of a financial crisis with an economy that isn’t working for a lot of middle-class and working-class and working poor people….if you drill down into what the guy believes, it’s tradition versus modernity. It’s God versus secularism.

What does all this have to do with Johnson’s jokes?

Two things obviously: Johnson is not a court jester. He is a senior politician with naked ambitions to lead and represent us all. He should be seeking healing and unity, not fostering division by likening British citizens to street furniture and criminals. I do not want an entertainer in No. 10, but a statesman.

Secondly, we do not have unconstrained free speech in the UK. We never have. We ban speech which incites hatred on the basis of race, faith, sexuality and so on. We used to limit it for blasphemy. Liberty summarises the various limitations well: we may or may not share their concerns about those constraints. My point is that speech is not and has never been absolutely free in this country.

More important, in the context of Bannon and the nature of our society, is whether we are being trained to accept behaviour and speech that many of us (at least 48% I suspect) would deplore. Even as long ago as 2015, some commentators were reporting an increase in assaults and restrictions and anyone who has got this far knows that there was a huge spike in hate crime in the UK after the referendum.

Jonathan Freedland back in January commented on the easy ride Humphries gave to the Roger Stone (a deeply unpleasant individual banned from Twitter for his racism). He reflected on normalisation that the acceptance of such behaviour “matters because it’s a symptom of normalisation, the urge to pretend Trump operates within the usual democratic boundaries when in fact he represents an alarming break from the norms that make liberal democracy possible.

Substitute Johnson for Trump. We are being told, urged to accept, that this degrading attack on what women choose to wear is acceptable. Maybe we are angry, broke and lied to by the press; we have been led to believe that those jobs which don’t exist have been taken away by demonised immigrants who profess a different faith from my lackadaisical attendance at midnight mass on Xmas Eve and ambition for a white wedding. Or perhaps we are that alleged elite who think pluralism matters, that free speech is indeed the bedrock of democracy and Johnson has the same rights as anyone else to make a tasteless joke.

I do not accept this lie. Johnson’s remarks were grotesquely offensive, blatant incitement to disrespect women on the basis of their faith-based attire, and utterly unacceptable for anyone aspiring to a leadership position. They were not funny and we should not, Mr Atkinson should not, defend his rights to propound such views. That way lies a fundamental attack on our most basic commitments to tolerance, freedom and a peaceful, pluralist society.

About Sarah Tanburn

I'm a writer, a sailor and a strategic adviser to public organisations. Visit my websites to find out more.
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