The cast of Craig Cash and Caroline Aherne's hit sitcom The Royle Family.
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I don’t mind if politicians went to posh schools. I do mind if they don’t listen to anyone who didn’t

Ad hominem attacks make no sense. All young people should enjoy the opportunity to tell their stories.

Let me begin by paying you a compliment. I don’t care where you went to school. There – have I made your day? No? All right, I’ll go further: I also don’t care what your dad did for a living, or how your mum voted. Nor do I mind whether you ate your tea in front of the telly, dinner at the kitchen table or supper in the dining room. Maybe you didn’t have a telly. Or you called it a TV. Or you had one but it was hidden in a cabinet. And maybe you seldom ate an evening meal at home because you were in care, or at boarding school; and you can’t tell me what your dad did for a living because you never met him; and you don’t know how your mum votes because she never votes, because she’s the Queen.

I call it a compliment because, if you disagree with me about something, I’ll wonder what might be wrong with what I said, rather than what might be wrong with you. If I offer a conjecture, you might challenge that conjecture – but you could return the compliment by not challenging my life. It’s a pleasant fantasy, isn’t it? But, oh well, back to human beings.

To rail against ad hominem attacks is as pointless as to rail against Homo sapiens. We think: therefore, we often talk rubbish. The trouble with playing the person instead of the ball is that a) it makes you look like you’re not interested in the ball and b) you almost always get the wrong person. You’ll notice I slightly compromised the more familiar phrase “playing the man instead of the ball” in the interests of not excluding women (many of whom like or play football). You might say that this is overly fastidious. Or that I’m favouring political correctness over clarity. Fine. But I’d rather that you didn’t say I wrote that because I am a “typical left-wing luvvie”, for instance, because then I would know I was in the presence of a dick. And, flawed as I am, that would be the end of our potentially interesting chat. The “Well, you would say that . . .” school of thought is not so much a school as a hospice.

It’s always a one-way street: I seek out the logical fallacies in argument, you are a benefit scrounger. I detect solecisms and lazy thinking, you are a public-school buffoon. I coolly weigh the evidence, you are a woman. We all do it. Rationality, objectivity: these things are essential to argument. But we are in trouble when we don’t recognise that we are swimming against the tide. Very bad things follow when we kid ourselves that we’re naturally rational, rather than the more humbling truth: naturally emotional.

So, perhaps a little forgiveness here. Does it matter that David Cameron went to Eton? Yes, it does. But do I blame, even hate, him for it? No, of course not: he was a child. We don’t withhold empathy from people who are lucky (though there are all kinds of luck: I’m not sure that, say, being waved off to boarding school at the age of seven is a guarantee of cloudless mental heath).

Yet we are free to judge people by what they do with that luck, and indeed by whether they show any sign of noticing it. I don’t mind that George Osborne went to St Paul’s School. I mind very much if he shows no sign of reading about, meeting and listening to a lot, and I mean, A LOT of people who didn’t. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer is not an expert on what it’s like to work on a zero-hours contract then he isn’t fit for the job.

It’s a matter of intellectual diversity. Where you have 20 people who all share roughly the same educational and life experiences, they’re going to come up with the same solutions to the same problems. Not only is equality of opportunity a good idea in terms of social justice (as ideas go, I can scarcely think of a better one), but the creative friction that comes from clever people from different backgrounds arguing about a common aim benefits all of us: business, politics, the arts, everyone.

Speaking of the arts, the recent handbag tussle between Chris Bryant and James Blunt made me think of The Royle Family and how long it took me to warm to it. Among other comments, the Labour culture spokesman criticised broadcasters for not making enough drama or comedy about working-class culture. The thing that initially alarmed me about Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash’s wonderful sitcom was how accurate it was. I grew up in a bungalow in the beautiful nowhere of Lincolnshire, where, to answer the questions above, we had our “tea” at the kitchen table and the thing in the corner of the “living room” was a “telly”. But then I scraped in to the grammar school, and then Cambridge. And from that moment – this isn’t rational, it’s just how it feels right now – I disqualified myself from writing about the people I grew up with. If I tried to write The Royle Family now, the critics wouldn’t review the show, they’d review me: I would pass them the ball and they would ask where I got my “Oxbridge football boots”.

But I’m just one bloke. We need to give back to young people all the advantages I enjoyed. Until a government can restore arts funding, public libraries, the Education Maintenance Allowance, housing benefit for young people and maintenance grants for the poorest university students, we will never hear from those talented people with their own, vibrant stories to tell. The ones who are not yet, as I have become, afraid.

 

Robert Webb is a comedian, actor and writer. Alongside David Mitchell, he is one half of the double act Mitchell and Webb, best known for award-winning sitcom Peep Show.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.