Some years ago I was invited to attend a talk by a senior member of the Anglican Church. He was a good and engaging speaker, but shocking in his dissection of the beliefs and practices of Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism and other world religions in an attempt to prove that the only valid church in the world was “ours”, and how flawed were the others. Even more shocking, to me, was the complacent approval with which his address was received by his audience, largely fellow-believers.
The talk oozed judgment and inaccuracy, and if a British Jew or Muslim or Buddhist or Catholic had been present they would have been deeply hurt, for the core of their religious beliefs was being attacked in a semi-public meeting in the country that was their home. Was it excusable that it happened in a partisan setting? I don’t think so.
I remembered the event as I pondered the furore over Boris Johnson’s comments on the wearing of the burka. I remembered, too, the tears shed by public and private figures over inexcusable criticism of their clothes, or weight, or children, people trolled and targeted directly sometimes to a degree where they became suicidal. I remembered how for hundreds of years the sketchwriters of the day like Alexander Pope and William Hogarth have satirised the rich and the poor, politics and religion, and how the exposures, cruel as they were, or are, sometimes brought about necessary social change. The truth can hurt, but sometimes we need to hear the truth – if we know the truth, and if speaking out is justified.
Compared to direct attacks on deeply held religious beliefs or on named individuals who are ridiculed most hurtfully and personally, Boris’s remarks about burka-wearers looking like letterboxes seem mild though unflattering by contrast. Where is the proportion in this heated debate? When did we get to be so censorious? Where is our sense of fairness, and perhaps of humour? I am reminded of the university students who blacklist guest speakers whose views they do not like, and who want works of art removed that are reminders of unpleasing historical events. I am reminded too of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The truth can hurt, but sometimes we need to hear the truth.
No-one, no religion, no belief nor lifestyle choice should be exempt from fair scrutiny, in a spirit of freedom of choice and freedom of speech, if the laws of the land are not broken and where there is no intentional and unnecessary malice or cruelty. For me, this is not so much about what Boris Johnson said about burka-wearers but about the public reaction to it all. Political point-scoring is jumbled up with multi-cultural grandstanding and, to me, over-reaction.
There are so many more important events going on in the world than this one that deserve our attention, like the future of the Planet. But then, the truth hurts, doesn’t it? And the real truth can be very inconvenient.