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We do need a concept of hate crime

April 22, 2016

“If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the whole concept of hate crime. A crime is a crime is a crime and should be punished accordingly. Why should some offences be considered more heinous than others simply because the perpetrator is said to have been motivated by hate?”

-Richard Littlejohn (Daily Mail)

I can tell you, Mr Littlejohn: because intention matters. It matters in law, when we decide that when someone beats someone to death in a fight, that is manslaughter, but if someone goes out and shoots someone in the head, that’s murder. There are lesser crimes, too, that still lead to death; hitting someone with your car and killing them can carry the much less serious indictment of “death by careless driving”.

The law makes allowances for intention, because intention makes up the whole psychology of crime. Indeed, for some crimes, proving intent is integral to the definition of the crime itself, such is the case with murder (the perpetrator must have intended to cause serious bodily harm at the very least).

This process is no different between hate crime and what some people describe as “crimes of passion.” A bit too elegant a description for such an ugly thing, but the point is that when a person strikes out in the spur of the moment due to a personal grievance, they are less dangerous than someone who makes a calculated attack. Pre-meditated murder is always seen as worse than spontaneous murder.

The idea that someone can, using the cool and collected part of their brain, decide to take someone life, is a terrifying idea. That most murders are terrible accidents caused by extreme anger by someone who has little emotional control colours our perception of what’s “normal”, even within the fringes. It is unusual to plan to attack someone, and it is a far stretch away from what civilised society expects and is willing to accept from its members.

A hate crime is a pre-meditated crime. An individual fosters their own hatred and anger for a particular group of people, privately or among friends and allies. They do not keep their thought processes in check, to make sure that they are being reasonable and empathetic; they are perfectly content to be unreasonable and without empathy. This is different to the average person who commits a crime in the spur of the moment and then regrets it.

Regret is an important part of human nature – it shows that we know we have done something wrong. Perpetrators of hate crime do not accept that they have done anything wrong. They share this trait with psychopaths, who blame their victims for suffering inflicted by them. Depending on the hate criminal, they may be as dangerous as a psychopath for this reason; always, the language of deserts pervades extremism.

You cannot rehabilitate such people via severe punishment. They will simply consider themselves a martyr. It takes someone to teach them, often quite laboriously, how wrong they are about the other group, and their mode of thinking in general; if they happen to be a psychopath as well, this will be immensely difficult, as they are simply not inclined to think empathetically, in terms different to their own.

Though not all hate criminals will be psychopaths, their attitude to members of the hated group mirrors the worst part of psychopathy; the perception that oneself is more important than others, including one’s opinions and one’s rights. If we can do anything to discourage such a process, we should.

I do agree with Mr Littlejohn’s qualms about third parties (or for that matter, first parties) assuming hate crime when there may not be any. Like all crimes, legally we must prove that this is the case, or the judiciary is not performing its job properly. I also agree with his implied point that the law is sometimes too blunt a tool to deal with mild “hate speech” transgressions, such as child indoctrination by teachers into certain points of view; though I have no doubt that he and I would disagree about which forms of education count as indoctrination.

Mr Littlejohn’s concern over the application of hate crime theory to conservative Christians and their values plainly clouds his understanding of how important tackling hate crime is. Hate crime is much more widely spread than we think, when we hear the term; we imagine a group of thugs beating up gay people. In actual fact, genocides, inhumane treatments of captives in war and terrorist attacks are all hate crimes; they are crimes driven by a hatred for a group of people whose aims or style of living is antithetical to your own.

Sensitivity and respect for other people is no joke. It’s not merely a question of silly, officious members of the government wading in clumsily to tell good Christians what to do. It’s about our entire society and human development; understanding the extremes to which intolerance leads, and how quickly and easily we can arrive at them if we allow ourselves to be dismissive and scornful of alternative viewpoints. Writers like Mr Littlejohn are often inconsistent; in order to appear not to privilege one group over another (and thus be accused of prejudice), they swing back and forth between the view that everyone’s opinions are sacrosanct, and that no one’s opinions are.

In this article, Mr Littlejohn was quite happy to defend teachers telling kids that gay marriage is wrong, but without a shred of irony added that he wouldn’t support gay marriage “being forced down the throats of those who beg to differ” even though he apparently “couldn’t care less about gay marriage one way or the other”. Here we observe a classic process of thinking that some opinions are more important to express than others. If we are to take his word that he doesn’t personally care about gay marriage, it is still plain to see that he cares more about defending of the freedom of speech of conservative Christians than he does about defending the freedom of speech of gay people. He flipped 180, from: everyone-can-say-what-they-want, to: no-one-has-the-right-to-force-their-opinions-on-anybody.

The reason we should mainly keep opinions to ourselves, if they are liable to offend, is not just because if we don’t society might become more violent; but because it is obviously the most courteous, civilised thing to do. When people present the concept of freedom of speech to me as though it is the most important right in existence, my question is always: “Freedom to say what?” Too often, the point of view that apparently needs to be said because “everyone’s thinking it” serves no purpose but to whine about the fact that there are people who choose to live their life differently to how you would.

To suggest that one’s own opinion as a good Christian, a good Muslim, a feminist, a socialist or a morally robust citizen is worth more than anyone else’s and therefore must be expressed – consequences be damned – is sheer arrogance at best. If there is no new or interesting sociopolitical point to be made, you need not put your ideas in the public eye. Self-control is what’s missing from the process of freedom of expression.

At this point, certainly the concern about how gay-people-getting-married-cheapens-real-marriage is a tired old argument that can’t be won; you either believe that God cares, or not. The two sets of people have to reconcile, and the easiest and most obvious way is to let it go, and if God has a problem with it, let him deal with it. I doubt the omnipotent, omniscient supreme being cries himself to sleep over it.

This acknowledgement from religious folk that leaving these complicated social issues in God’s hands is the best option could solve a lot of problems; if only Islamic terrorists and current police states could be made to feel the same way about their ideas. Although the issues are different, their root is the same, and that is why the root matters.

It would be much easier to deal with hate crime if it wasn’t exacerbated by the cult of verbal diarrhoea. People who can’t put their personal qualms away complicate the problem by going on and on about freedom of speech, and mistaking the right to express yourself with the entitlement to do so all the damn time. If people did a bit less of that, and thought about whether they are really likely to achieve anything of worth with their vocal resistance, it would be a lot easier for the legislature and judiciary to identify hate speech and hate crime.

In other words, people who slur other groups of people for variant life choices are practically begging for trouble, and haven’t much right to complain when their lives get interfered with as a result. If they could have held their tongue, or at least expressed themselves in a more considerate, even-handed way, they wouldn’t have that problem. What we certainly can’t do is just get rid of the concept of hate crime to suit a few ferocious moralists. After all, the most dangerous hate criminals are ferocious moralists.


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