Boris Johnson thinks that the voluminous detail-concealing garments that women of certain cultural backgrounds wear in public are absurd and ridiculous. For this, open season has been declared on him. He has been accused of being Islamophobic. The Conservative party also stands accused of being Islamophobic, but this accusation is largely being levelled by members of a political party and its fellow travellers who are probably anti-Semitic. It is a classic Soviet-style whataboutism, a deflection designed to redirect scrutiny and discourse, or to state that this activity is normal because it is also in some way practised by opponents who are worse.

The accusations against the former Foreign Secretary are actually a form of labelism. Labelism works by labelling words, conduct or an organisation in order to attack them. It is a way of closing down debate by making an ad hominem attack instead a valid counter-argument. Such attacks can be much-rehearsed in front of the wardrobe mirror well before being used in public. It is not the subject that is attacked, but the label. It is much easier simply to denounce someone as a racist than having to formulate a point of disagreement based on what has been said or done. And a normal person is willing to make almost any concession rather than be labelled a racist, even if what he or she would propose is not generally regarded as racist. The current test of hate speech is subjective. If a person believes they have been affected by what someone else has said or done, that is all that seems to be needed. Rational objectivity has been supplanted by militant self-interest.

In the internet age, being labelled a racist, sexist, homophobe, transphobe or Islamophobe is permanent and will be damaging. For some reason, being labelled an anti-Semite does not carry the same weight, which does indicate a media culture of tacit anti-Semitism as well as a denial that anti-Semitism is racism, which is rather anti-Semitic in itself.

Labelism also does something else. Rather than an issue being debated using an objective examination of available information to arrive at a conclusion based on the application of reason, any debate where labelism intrudes becomes a meta-debate, a debate about the debate. The subject of the debate is lost and replaced by how it is permitted to debate the subject, if at all. This harms people if the outcome of any debate is policy. The classic example of this has to be the gang rapes in Rotherham committed under Tony Blair’s New Labour, where the duty of protection by the state was compromised by the fear of being labelled racist or Islamophobic because members of one ethnic group were committing the vast majority of the organised crimes. According to Labour MP Naz Shah, hundreds of rape victims should ‘shut up’ in the name of diversity. Her attacks on rape victims and the rapes themselves have never been regarded as a feminist issue, probably for fear of labelism.

Labelism is also binary. Things that are not so labelled are permissible. Those that are labelled are to be ignored, as in Rotherham, or attacked, like Boris Johnson. People who practise labelism heavily organise their thoughts and their articulation in this binary fashion while policing everyone around them, creating a climate of fear of being labelled. It is possible that the fear of being labelled as transphobic resulted in the BBC recruiting a proportion of transgender employees much greater than their representation in the wider population, to the obvious disadvantage of possibly better qualified applicants who were more comfortable with their genitals.

The state broadcaster is responsible for allowing its fear of being labelled to percolate through to viewers and listeners. The BBC has a record of allowing socialist denunciation to proceed in studio debates without hindrance from the presenter, whose job surely should be to ensure a high standard of discourse free from Left-wing polemic and logical fallacies such as whataboutism. By accommodating irrationality, the BBC transmits that fear to its audience, empowering aggressive socialists who will use labelism to win public arguments by shutting down opposing views and deflecting inconvenient truths. I hold no brief for Tommy Robinson, but his media prominence seems to be due to the closing of debate by the prevention of more moderate and rational opinion from being articulated owing to fear of being labelled by extremists.

The quality of studio debate in the UK has declined as, in the name of inclusivity, the quality of Left-wing debaters has also declined. Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News had a harsh reminder of this decline when she was out-thought by Jordan Peterson, who destroyed her attempt to close his ideas down using labelism. If the BBC allows current health policy to be labelled as the policies of Stanley Baldwin or the United States of America, it is failing to inform its audience rationally and objectively. Too many of its presenters in news and political programmes are about as useful as lava lamps when a socialist mounts his or her high horse and starts firing the label gun. The honourable exception is Andrew Neil, but he is not getting any younger, and is easy to avoid by ambitious and unscrupulous socialists who will choose to appear on different programmes.

Labelism by socialists is easy to spot. Together with whataboutism, it is how they avoid proper scrutiny of their ideas and the outcomes of those ideas. Our television news presenters should be more challenging and unafraid of stopping socialists in their tracks when they use these well-rehearsed tactics. It is the clearest indicator that most presenters are quite overpaid, but also that their supine behaviour is damaging democracy by allowing the redirection or closing of debate to avoid labelism.