The problem with hate crime.

Don't hate speech
To understand this problem try the following thought experiment, imagine a world where it is against the law for anyone to admit they hate you. Initially you might enjoy it as those expressing nasty or unpleasant thoughts about you are punished by our Government. Such special protection might even make you grateful to your protector, encouraging a relationship and status alike to that of a "teacher's pet" in the classroom of a secondary school.

However, it wouldn't be long until you might notice your new status comes at a cost. Banning recreational drugs did not cause the problem to go away but instead drove it underground and, in a lot of cases, caused the substances to become more poisonous and addictive. The same pattern is occurring with the nation's "hate speech laws". With some prejudices now effectively classified as illegal the problem is not going away, it has instead gotten worse.

Return to the teacher's pet analogy and imagine yourself a student in a classroom where no one can criticise you. Picture an announcement in the school assembly where all the pupils are informed of your special status. How would you feel? Think about the fact that in such a context your enemies are afraid to declare themselves and so now you are denied an opportunity to safely have it out with them. Ask how you identify the thugs who jumped you on the way home from school when teacher was nowhere to be seen, how do you come to understand the reasons no one will play with you in the playground? How do you become 'normal' in that context? Then try to challenge the inevitable creeping concern that people secretly whisper lies about you, pass notes around slandering you and have maybe even developed a coded language to allow them to publicly criticise you in the classroom?

Paranoia would be natural as the realisation dawned that laws intended to protect you instead made your situation more dangerous, encouraging enemies to gain a tactical advantage as they become invisible. This is where protected minority groups find themselves 30 years after the "hate speech laws" were enacted, beginning with the pubic order act of 1986 but added to by successive Governments ever since, most notably in 1998 with "hate crime" legislation where any crime assumed to be motivated by prohibited prejudices was deemed worthy of stricter punishment.

Rather than tackling the problem these laws have produced a series of worrying unintended consequences, the fruits of which we are now reaping. One of the worst is that they have hidden the issues behind a superficial illusion of tolerant speech, allowing the realities of the problem to fester in the darkness. This must concern anyone involved in the argument against prejudice because in reality it is on the increase. This is visible in the Government's own data: hate crime figures have consistently risen since they first began monitoring them in 2012.

Partly this is because we've incentivised victims of crime to believe they were targeted because they are part of a protected minority group. Hate crime laws state that the perception of the victim is a significant factor in determining if a crime was motivated by a prohibited prejudice. Victims naturally tend to want the maximum punishment brought to bear on their attackers. Alleging the belief a hate crime has occurred likely increases the severity of punishment.

This introduces a system of selective enforcement into our justice system which is supposed to apply the law without fear or favour. Selective enforcement is widely regarded as an early form of tyranny, it's something our ancestors warned against with the traditional symbol of justice, a woman with a bandage over her eyes, blind to the status of her defendant. In the UK we are all supposed to stand equally before the law, hate crimes ensure some groups are more protected by it than others. In nations where tribe or religion grant you special privilege before the law such arrangements are common. We should not be comfortable with it. Why should a white old lady who gets mugged receive less justice than an Asian one who alleges her attacker had additional racial or religious motives? Why should a homosexual who is called a 'puff' before being attacked deserve more protection than a heterosexual given exactly the same treatment?

The wider impact of these unintended consequences is the mind set these laws have produced. By accepting them our society has condoned a blatant attack on free speech, making some thoughts literally illegal to express. This has warped our political discourse as worried minority groups search for their invisible enemies in political discussion and popular culture. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and every other form of illegal prejudice, is now something you must hypothesise exists in someone by guessing the 'real meaning' of their words with little to no direct evidence. On the one hand this means we are left unsure if people really are using coded language when they denounce Israel, multiculturalism, Europe, Islam or political correctness. So called "dog whistle politics" may well have been at work as The Tories fought the recent London Mayoral elections or Ken Livingstone toured TV studios telling people Hitler was a Zionist.

On the other hand, as such things are by their nature subjective, there are many people who are falsely accused of harbouring prejudices they do not have. Anyone involved in a debate about immigration will know how tedious it is to be called racist. I pity those falsely accused of prejudices because any response they give is greeted by, "well of course they would say that". This is a direct result of the law of the land, an inevitable consequence of political prohibition.

Paranoia, loosely broken down as a word, means to be of more than one mind, 'para' meaning to run alongside and noia or 'nous' meaning mind or sense. I grew up in a world where I really thought there was no such thing as homophobia or racism. I assumed it had simply died out and throughout the 1990's it remained largely invisible to me. I was tricked by the combined effect of our hate speech laws and my admittedly privileged position in society as a straight white male. However, over the years there has been a change in my experience. Not only have I become aware that prejudice was always very much alive and well in the UK but also I have noticed it has clearly become more prevalent because, in recent times, people are becoming less and less scared of expressing it. Words lose their meaning when overused, the words "racist" and "sexist" are prime examples.

It's irritating to have to qualify my racial and sexual identity in this article because I want to live in a world where the content of our character matters more than the colour of our skin. However it's relevant because it means I sometimes hear the unfiltered illegal version of some people's thoughts, in a way a protected minority might not. In the past people were ashamed of being racist or homophobic, these days they're only really concerned about being caught.

30 years on and the truth is we've reached a crossroads as regards challenging hate. The failure of the law to control these social problems must be acknowledged and the short sightedness of those who look to extend the poisoned chalice of Government protection for special groups needs to be addressed. It's time to open a sensible debate about the repeal of hate crime and hate speech laws, in the interests of minorities and our wider society as a whole. They encourage people to see hate where it does not exist, mask it where it does and preventing us from debating it. We must return to our principles of free speech, democracy and equality before the law. Those who hold prejudice of any kind must be able to speak freely, encouraging those of us who oppose them to debate with them and explain why we are sure they are wrong.

The election of Donald Trump, Brexit and the return of the "shy Tory" provide mounting evidence that the alternative route is a huge mistake. Yet to my amazement there are still many groups whose members beg for the Government to award them this dubious protection. They are all of them like lambs seeking shelter inside a proverbial slaughterhouse. Once inside they will find themselves surrounded by invisible enemies, ask anyone who supported 'feminist' Hillary Clinton, The Labour Party in the last UK election or The Remain campaign in our recent referendum what it is like to tackle a very real but invisible enemy. Oponents do not cease to exist just because you silence them, instead they creep up on you and surprise you with their numbers when you least expect it.


Ytsejamonit said…
Good stuff Nick. Good to see you blogging again. Hope you're well!

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