January 11th, 2012


Hate Crimes

I think this recent article by Rob Liddle in The Spectator must qualify as one of the worst pieces of mainstream journalism I've seen in a while, for its full house of a) "What about the poor middle-class white men?" entitlement; b) lack of humour (clearly Liddle's is the "Can't you take a joke?" school of bigotry, but his jokes aren't nearly good enough to make the offer tempting); and c) ignorance: quite apart from not having bothered to check the murder rates for trans people, for example, he seems to think that "intersex" refers to some kind of sexual orientation.

(Unless this part is a joke, and he's parodying the ravings of an ignorant bigot? In that case, though, I don't see the point of the article at all. Choosing intersex people as an amusingly risible category for whom to propose legal protection suggests to me that he really doesn't know what he's talking about, as they need it more than almost any other group I can think of.)

I could happily spend this post listing all the stuff Liddle's got wrong, but, as they say in Eastenders, he's not worth it. My only worry is that The Spectator is still read in certain parts of the Tory party, and the contemptuous tone of Liddle's article may leach into the soil on which its bovine subconscious grazes.

Even so, he raises a question I've never quite settled in my own mind - which is the justification (or not) for hate crime laws. Sometimes I lean in one direction, sometimes in the other. I suppose I don't feel as strongly about making a victim's trans status an aggravating factor in cases of murder, as I do about its not being used as a mitigation, as it regularly has been.

Off the top of my head, I can think of four types of argument for hate crime laws, but I'm not entirely convinced by any of them...

  1. First, there's the argument of lack of provocation. A lot of the reports about the Stephen Lawrence case, for example, have stressed that he was murdered, not because of anything he did to provoke his attackers, but simply because he was black. I agree this makes it worse, but then why wasn't "lack of provocation" the aggravating factor, rather than the victim's race? People have been murdered because they were wearing a nice watch, or the wrong team's football scarf, or at random - none of which is (in the usual way of things) considered provocative. But all these would of course fall outside the hate crimes legislation. So there must be more to it...

  2. Next, there's the argument of vulnerability. Most hate crime legislation applies to particular minorities, and minorities are, in general, more vulnerable than majorities, which might make legislators want to go the extra mile to protect them. But a similar objection applies: why not make the vulnerability of the victim an aggravating factor, rather than their membership of a group on a designated list? Children and nonegenarians are vulnerable too, and I'd hope that their murder would be treated more harshly on those grounds, but in neither case would it be considered a hate crime.

  3. Then, there's the argument of intimidation. Murdering a member of a vulnerable group (and particularly a small, easily identifiable group), has a disproportionate effect on the other members of that group. Murder two trans women in one town, and all the rest are victims too. I have more sympathy with this argument, but I'm still uneasy about setting out in law criteria that protect some such groups and not others. For example, violence against women has meant that women in general are far more intimidated about walking the streets at night alone than are men. There are plenty of misogynists out there: by this rule, shouldn't women as a group be protected by hate crime legislation?

  4. Finally, there's the argument of social policy, which is that by making crimes against a persecuted group more severely punishable, you help over time to change attitudes at large. My problems with this are two-fold. First, I'm not convinced that it works: arguably it just gives fuckwits like Liddle a chance to whinge about how poor a hand life has dealt him (c.f. BNP candidates complaining about how the immigrants shoot to the top of the housing queue). Secondly, I think the justice system should be used to punish individuals for their own crimes, not also for other people's possible future crimes, which is what this would, I think, amount to.

As you can see, I have problems with this whole area, but many people I respect do believe in the hate crime principle, and I'm more than willing to believe that I've missed an important argument somewhere along the line. Feel free to enlighten me.