Thought police

'Hate crime' laws turn the offensive into an offence.

Ray Crowley

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Topics Free Speech

This week I heard a policeman talk about community safety and race hate crime.

I was quite dubious beforehand. I didn’t think it was useful when police released the statistic that the majority of muggings are committed by black people. I didn’t relish the idea of listening to a policeman talking about how race divides people and is a defining factor in crime.

The policeman began by explaining that the police force today is very different to the gloomy era when he first joined in 1981. Today’s officers don’t just sit around waiting for crimes to be reported, he said. They go out into the community, seeking out problems and offences, and aiming to make the police more accessible to those who would otherwise have shied away. Or, alternatively put, they encourage people to consult the police about problems that didn’t used to be considered a police matter.

This must have been why this policeman was in a doctor’s surgery, talking to a group of receptionists during their Tuesday afternoon fortnightly staff meeting. Though none of us moonlight as social workers, special constables or counsellors, it was apparently important for the police to explain ‘hate crime’ to us – and how we could address it in our professional capacity. (Although I would have thought that, in our professional capacity, hate crime is none of our business.)

In the eyes of the police, we were told, ‘hate crime’ falls into three main categories: racism, homophobia, and domestic violence. It is not the viciousness with which you beat someone up that makes a serious ‘hate crime’ – it is the sentiment entrenched in the act of beating them up. Causing grievous bodily harm in a domestic situation, the policeman said, is far worse than causing grievous bodily harm to a stranger in the street.

Why? Giving someone a severe kicking is clearly against the law. Hating your wife, hating the gay man at work or hating your Asian neighbours are not.

Prejudice against people of a particular race or sexuality is morally reprehensible, but it should not be illegal. In a free country, we can think what we want and indeed hate who we want to. The police may be there to uphold the law, but our personal beliefs are none of their business.

No wonder this policeman came across as rather Orwellian. After all, the ‘hate’ part of ‘hate crime’ is the thought, not the deed.

The umbrella of ‘hate crime’ also includes non-criminal or borderline criminal acts. The policeman asked us to think of all the ways people communicate, such as text messages, telephone calls, letters and emails. ‘If it’s offensive’, he said, ‘it’s an offence’. It seems that today, in the eyes of the law, personal offence is equated with criminal offence. If your victim (the person you accidentally farted in front of?) decides that your act has broken their unwritten code of decency, then you are fair game as a perpetrator of hate crime.

Most of us have received those rude text messages, which do the rounds on mobile phones. I’d pass them on to some of my friends, but probably not to my parents. If I did pass them on to my parents, and they found them offensive, would I have been committing an ‘offence’ – or just have misjudged their sense of humour? It’s a dangerous road to go down – after all, anyone could find anything offensive.

And even when something is intended to offend someone, that doesn’t necessarily make it bad. In the past, ideas such as women having the vote, same-sex relationships and racial equality were offensive to the majority of people. It was difficult enough for those ideas to gain a hearing, even without the category of ‘hate crime’ criminalising offence.

Given the choice, I am neither racist nor homophobic, and I do not beat up my boyfriend (all that often). Given the choice, I can disagree with – or even ‘hate’ – those who are racist and homophobic. I can argue and debate with them, and I might convince them of my opinions – or they might convince me of theirs. Isn’t that better than just skipping the part where I think for myself, and instead have the correct opinion dictated to me by the all-knowing police?

The best way to decide on what you think is right is to have the freedom to hear and debate all ideas, no matter how distasteful they are. After all, if you start calling those you disagree with criminals, what happens when you are the minority and everyone disagrees with you?

Read on:

spiked-issue: Free speech

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Topics Free Speech

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