Black roses for a broken society
The cowardly and callous murder in 2007 of Sophie Lancaster, a gap year student who was beaten to death by drunken teenagers in a park in Lancashire, was the starting point for a discussion on hate crimes, hosted by Matthew Taylor (Black Roses Debate, Radio 4, August 24th). Sophie and her boyfriend Robert Maltby, who happily survived, were reportedly set upon because they were Goths (“moshers” in local parlance).
Hate crimes have been defined as “criminal acts committed with a bias motive” (1). The victims of hate crimes share what is called a “protected characteristic”, such as race, language, religion or nationality.
The rationale for hate crime laws is that the perpetrators of the offences in question also intimidate the community to which the victim belongs. They thereby “damage the fabric of society and damage communities” (2). The argument is, then, that hate crimes are special, that they have symbolic significance. They require additional punishment because they violate the idea of equality and by targeting a person’s identity cause greater harm than other crimes.
However, as Matthew Taylor pointed out, calls for members of sub-cultures like Goths to be protected by hate laws (calls which were repeated in this programme) overlook the distinction between what are generally God-given identities, such as ethnicity or gender or disability, and identities that people choose.
One speaker noted the infinite number of identities that could in theory be protected by hate laws. The list of identities currently singled out for protection in this country (namely, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation and sexual orientation) is somewhat arbitrary, a crude index of fashionable thinking.
Another speaker recalled a friend, a rent collector, who was robbed and killed some years ago. Why, he demanded, is the pain caused to that victim’s family and friends deemed to be less than to those of a victim of a so-called hate crime? A further problem with hate laws identified during the discussion is that they hinge on the mind set of the perpetrator. They therefore arguably have the same inherent defect as other thought crimes.
Should members of the BNP or EDL be added to the hallowed list of those protected by hate crime laws? The idea seemed preposterous to some of the participants in this debate. Yet to physically attack someone because of their political views would seem to constitute a hate crime, according to current definitions.
Conclusion, don’t expect too much insight or common sense from a congeries of “experts” and activists. For as Thomas Carlyle once famously remarked, “…there is an immense fund of Human Stupidity circulating among us…”
1. Hate Crime Laws: a Practical Guide, published by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Warsaw, Poland, 2009
Leslie Jones, 27 August 2011