Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Hate Crime

I've just been listening to a debate this evening on Hate Crime on Radio 4, the stimulus for which was the murder in 2007 of Sophie Lancaster and her boyfriend 'because they were Goths'.
The argument seemed to be about whether the definition of 'Hate Crime' should be widened to include a much larger variety of victimised groups than previously and the perpetrators treated differently as a result. The exchange quickly got bogged down in the validity of the categorisations of the various groups that victims might belong to, in particular, whether membership of the group could be seen as voluntary (which for example being a Goth arguably is, in a way that being a woman definitely isn't.)

I think this muddles up two separate things - on the one hand the status of the victims and on the other the motives of the perpetrators.
Taking the latter first, it seems to me that there are various motives for criminal acts - most obviously Material Gain, whether it be burglary, mugging or looting for example. A simple love of doing damage whether to people or things is another - from vandalism to picking a fight with a random by-stander.
Hate crime is different (although any crime can have a mixture of motives of course) because it rests on intolerance of people seen to be different and therefore a threat to the perpetrators' idea of what people or society should be like. It's about power, contempt and narrow mindedness, and quite rightly it especially bothers us because it is reminiscent of fascism and other sorts of extremism. The riots were not a 'hate crime against shop-keepers' as one panellist suggested. They were mostly, as far as I could tell, about stealing and destroying stuff for fun.

My point here would be that in many ways, classifying this or that crime as 'racist' or 'homophobic' for example is perhaps giving the crime an integrity and a status it doesn't warrant. Certainly some people are more drawn to attacking black people than, say, attacking women, but in many ways that is just a matter of personal bias. What lies underneath is the urge to attack what is different. I firmly believe that it is not the case that if there were no black people in the UK the racists would all be lovely peace loving people. No, they'd find someone else to attack. It's who they are. They define themselves by who they hate, and feel the need to demonstrate this at every opportunity for fear of losing their identity.

Categorising the victims should therefore be irrelevant to the criminal justice system. Hate crime can be completely defined by the motivation of the attacker - which is hatred. It shouldn't matter what group or groups the victims might see themselves as belonging to and surely the police and the courts shouldn't be wasting time debating it. If the perpetrator attacked a person simply because of who they perceived them to be (as opposed to because they wanted to rob them or because they wanted to hurt someone and it didn't much matter who it was) then it is a hate crime.

Categorising victims in this or that group only becomes useful if those groups feel they can protect their members better by banding together - sharing information, providing solidarity and counselling for example. This is why categorisation makes perfect sense to victims and potential victims, but is of no use to the criminal justice system. (The only problem seems to be for those awkward buggers who are so different they don't fit into any groups.)

Something the panel did seem to agree on was that it didn't really matter whether membership of a group was voluntary or not. Combating hate crime is all about protecting the right of people to be who they are. Being 'different' is something we should value.
Amen to that.


John Myste said...

If two people follow a spindly gay guy out of a bar and beat him senseless while shouting: "God hates Fags," that is probably a clear example of a hate crime.

I am not sure why this crime is worse than two men following a large guy out of bar and beating him senseless shouting: "stay away from my girl."

In both cases they hated him and wanted to punish him. To punish the first case more severely is to punish thought, and borders on bigotry.

I am free to hate whomever I please. I am not free to assault anyone, be it because I hate him or because his funny hat provoked me to violence.

Steve Law said...

Yes I was inclined to stay away from saying which if any of the above motivations should be seen as worse and therefore deserving greater punishment. Perhaps it's irrelevant. Assault is assault.
I don't know though. Assault based on bigotry (perhaps because of the fascist connection) feels worse.
I'm not sure why.

Vincent said...

I probably haven't thought enough about this to comment, but I find myself confused as to why it is necessary to classify hate crimes at all, let alone give a list of eligible victim types.

I agree with John on this. The crime is categorised by its intention, effect & motivation. So e.g. we have attempted murder, murder and manslaughter.

I suppose that if someone blows up a pub because it is frequented by gays, the act in principle threatens all gays, so the punishment should be more severe than - I don't know, some other motivation.

If he blows up the pub because he wants to kill the man who stole his girl, he's less of a threat to the entire population.

Or is he? Someone capable of such indiscriminate violence threatens everyone, just as much as the gay-hater.

Except that the gay-hater is much more likely to be provoked, since there are more gays in the country than men who want to steal his girl.

In my ideal judicial system, the judge would explain this point to the jury, and we would have no need for a specific "hate crime" offence.

And there would be fewer bogus arrests. Example in my town. We have occasional street-preachers in the town square, relics of a bygone age. Some gay-activist-types, wanting a bit of fun, goaded one of these hell-fire merchants, provoking him to the point where he said that homosexuals would get their reward and burn in hell.

The gay activists were delighted and rang the police on their mobile phones, who came and arrested the poor preacher, who spent 5 hours in detention being questioned. It seems that hate crimes include the category of verbal violence or incitement to violence. I don't know why it is always 5 hours. It's plain that most of the time they will be held in a room being offered cups of tea by kindly female constables, who say "Don't worry, love, it's just routine", whilst waiting for an overworked detective constable to come and take a statement etc.)

Naturally to those arrested in this fashion, the 5 hours' loss of liberty comes across as being sentenced without trial.

If there were just crime and not hate crime then the police might employ a secret weapon they used to have in the old days - common sense.

Steve Law said...

I'm always a bit wary of arguments based on 'common sense'. Common sense just seems to mean whatever assumptions happened to be taken for granted in whatever time and place one happened to grow up in. But anyway...
I suspect it's a red herring (where does that expression come from?) to try to decide whether it's worse to be beaten up randomly by some scumbag down the pub or by a bunch of racist turds. We don't decide whether it's better to be raped rather than knifed for example when we legislate. They are different crimes. It's not about which is worse.
I feel there is a difference between a racially motivated attack and a random knifing. I think it's something about the broader context, about communities living in fear and the attack as an expression of a more widely held opinion. Whatever we think should be done about that, it's not the same as an isolated sociopath taking out his frustrations on a random individual. He's not likely to have people reading about him in the morning paper, quietly giving him the thumbs up.
Oh and I've never bought into the idea that being intolerant of bigots is itself a form of bigotry.

Bryan M. White said...

I'm new here, but I have to say that I agree with your other commenters, and in fact, I'm pleasantly surprised by their perceptiveness in the matter. I even agree with Vincent, for a change.

"Hate Crime" seems to get too hung up on the issue of motive. Like someone said above, an assault is an assault. The crime is in the damage done, not the motives behind it. Of course, as you counter, crimes committed out of hate do seem somehow uglier, and warranting stiffer penalty. I can see that.

However, you always have to bear in mind the potential fallibility of justice system. You always have to be careful about laws which depend on an omniscience that the people presiding over the case are incapable of. We discuss these things as though they're clear cut, as though the motives are laid open to common knowledge for everyone to make a decision on. Motives aren't always so conveniently transparent, so the temptation arises for the court to infer motives strictly on circumstances.

Let's say we have a white man out at the bar. He tends to get violent when he drinks. A black man bumps into him, causing him to spill his beer. The white man loses his temper and punches the black man. The police get called, and he's hauled off to jail. Now isn't it possible that a judge could infer a hate crime simply from the parties involved? How much solid evidence has to be established before something is considered a hate crime? Maybe the man, being drunk and senseless, used a racial slur when he hit him. Is that enough to call it a hate crime? Where is the line drawn?

Anyway, regardless of all that. I agree that it's the nature of the crime that should determine the punishment. If a group of men tie a man to the bumper and drag him to death down a country road, they should get what's coming to them, regardless of the races involved.

Steve Law said...

'We discuss these things as though they're clear cut... Motives aren't always so conveniently transparent'
This harks back to John Myste's comment about punishing thought.
I think discussions like these can get bogged down in how we might in practice deal with individual cases. This is a problem in so many areas of life. The devil is in the detail. So little is clear cut. There are so many grey areas.
But there's also an adage about tough cases making bad law.
We shouldn't lose sight of the many cases at either end of the spectrum that are quite obviously one thing or the other and which can be dealt with with confidence, nor of the importance of formulating a basic principal, no matter how hard it is to carry out in practice.
If Hate Crime is an important and distinct type of assault (like sexual assault for example, or child abuse) then surely the law should recognise that.

John Myste said...

You make a good point, Steve. I am going to continue to argue, but in reality, I am not sure if I am on your side or mine. Since you are not representing my side, I will, out of a sense of fairness and loyalty.

I will concede that the law kind of validates thought punishment through precedent.

First degree murder implies a planned murder. If you murder someone spontaneously, that is not first degree.

There is one difference, of course. The theory is that if you plan a murder, that you planned it can potentially be proved.

Most angry violence is an expression of hate, be it for a person or for a group of people. Hate is usually irrational.

Additionally, if someone hates you enough to act violently, they also hate you enough to try to upset you in other ways. If you are black, they may call you a nigger. If you are gay, they may call you a fag. If you are Hispanic, they may call you a spic. If you are bald, they may call you bald.

The fact that they use slurs intended to offend, does not imply hatred for a group of people. It only means they know you will take umbrage when they use the term.

It is wrong to punish anyone for something they cannot help, unless you can prove an enormous utilitarian reward (and even then it is questionable). Those who hate do not choose hate. They do choose to act on it. Not only can you not definitively prove a crime of hate, the hate itself is not criminal, only the violent act is.

Those accused of hate crimes are innocent until proven guilty. What should the just penalty be for a thought we guess they have and of which we don’t approve?

Steve Law said...

This is interesting isn't it - on the one hand we have the situation where someone for whatever reason takes exception to another person and as part of their attack picks up on some characteristic of that person (that they are gay, black or female for instance) and as part of a tirade, chucks in the appropriate verbal abuse (queer, nigger, bitch...)
If I was extremely angry at a teenager with bad acne I could imagine calling him a spotty kid. He can't help being spotty, but that's how insults work. They're not supposed to be rational.
That's one extreme.
On the other hand we have the case of the mother and daughter who were hounded to death recently by local kids because of her daughter's disability. Or the case of my mate Mark who, back in the nineties, was twice beaten up for being gay (He wasn't as it happens. He only looked that way.)
We're getting i think side-tracked by the fuzziness of the first types of cases (which could safely be prosecuted simply as assualt),when for a significant minority of people (majority if you include women) being attacked because of the group you belong to is a clear and unambiguous fact of life.
Proving motive is a problem for sure, but I'm sure that for this latter type it's nowhere near as nuanced as we're making out, and when we come to consider the really extreme cases of genuine fascism and genocide it's not ambiguous at all.
I think our picking over the subtleties of the former cases in such detail is missing the point

John Myste said...

It is not a question of ambiguity. To the degree that a thought is unprovable, we should consider making it unpublishable.

Our thought police may be inclined to treat a thought as proven when it is not. Since there is a clear crime attached, that is verifiable, perhaps we should stick with that.

In this case, it is not even a question of who committed the crime. The question is, instead, was the crime committed?

Our answer, "why yes. We can see your hateful thoughts were worse than the other guy's hateful thoughts, and so you are more deserving of punishment."

Seems like a unnecessary task, and perhaps the thought police should be laid off entirely.

Vincent said...

I certainly agree with John on the notion of "thought crimes".

The only exception I would make is when private thought is made public with a view to incitement, either to direct violence or some kind of repression.

Example: in the Fifties my grandmother was in Kenya. Mau-Mau activists (who were called terrorists at the time) were angry at all the good land having been taken by the white settlers for agriculture. A rumour was started that the Mau-Mau stole white babies to eat them. There was no truth in it but the British authorities encouraged the spreading of the rumour, so as to justify harsh repression of the activists.

I do remember my grandmother, who was tender-hearted towards the natives generally, saying that the Mau-Mau were guilty of "unspeakable things".

Not to denounce the rumour as fabrication was to incite hateful thoughts. I would not wish to blame the white settlers (including my grandmother) for hateful thoughts against the Mau-Mau. But the government officials were surely to blame.

Steve Law said...

Yes (to both) I agree, but I'm not sure anyone is advocating punishing anyone for what they think (who among us would go unscathed?), only for the consequences of their thoughts (and only then when the causal connection can be proved, which might be rarely). In any case I'm not sure about this 'Thought Police'. I've heard it before in connection with the sixties drug induced paranoia and McCarthyite witch-hunts but was it ever a real thing? (Obviously I know there isn't a room at Scotland Yard with THOUGHT POLICE written on the door) There's censorship and freedom of speech issues of course but then the 'thoughts' are out there, doing things, becoming evidence and that's surely the point here.
Vincent's account of his experiences in Africa is exactly to the point. With hate crimes (I'm beginning to loath that term) the 'thoughts' are doing things. They're not just philosophical musings or satirical asides, they're all about slander and incitement and persecution. They cause misery and fear and injury. They have power.
Something should be done, surely?

Vincent said...

The ThinkPol (thought police) were invented by George Orwell in his satire 1984.

In a sense the thought police may exist today because technically possible. For example people express their thoughts privately in telephone messages and emails which can be hacked. They may express philosophical musings and satirical asides on Twitter as well, which can be viewed by all without hacking.

They may have no intention to incite. Should they be prosecuted for what they have said? The Guido Fawkes blog often exposes politicians for what they have said on Twitter. It can hardly be said to be eavesdropping.

The most famous case in history was where king Henry II is alleged to have said, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?". It was taken as incitement to murder the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.

A difficult case to judge, I think. Was the king merely tweeting his frustration? was he to blame for the murder?

Apparently he was misquoted and what he really said was "What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?"

But that's too long for a tweet.

Steve Law said...

A wise man once said "I have no clear idea whatsoever how to bring about the changes that I want in how the world is run, but what I do know is that nothing can ever change until enough people believe that something should change. Everything else follows from that ... Once the moral will (or the pressure) is there, somehow, practical steps emerge, but not before. Too often powerful moral arguments are shouted down by vested interests, demanding to know exactly how we propose putting our ideas into practice. The question is premature."
The question therefore is whether the moral argument is powerful enough, not how to put it into practice.
(There is I understand a formula that predicts how long into a debate Hitler will make an appearance. Well here he comes now...)
I wonder how many people Hitler actually personally executed (I mean as a politician, not as a soldier), or Stalin, or Mao, or Gadafi for that matter. And even if the answer is 'many' is that the only blood on their hands?
There are all sorts of problems with interpretation and evidence, none of which I underestimate, but
Incitement is not a trivial matter. Prevention may be better than cure in some cases.
Do we have to wait until these people actually kill someone before we act?

Vincent said...

Yes I think you have to wait till a crime is committed. If you treat everyone with suspicion as a potential criminal then everyone suffers.

Or at least that's what I imagine. What do you have in mind if we don't have to wait until these people actually kill someone before we act? What is your proposed method of preventing people from incitement or other such crimes?

Steve Law said...

Hate Crime
I don’t see why incitement should not be a crime in itself – and I’m not talking about some unfortunately worded Tweets or the ravings of the local religious nutcase. I’m talking about overt and deliberate campaigns of abuse. The targets often know very well who the perpetrators are and where they live. Conclusive evidence though may be hard to come by.

I’ve been thinking about other areas of the law where proof may be all but impossible to come by, most obviously in areas of sexual assault and in particular child abuse and date rape. The difficulties are different - often all we have is his word against hers, but even so I don’t think anyone is proposing that these shouldn’t be regarded as crimes.
Also there are laws about threatening behaviour, stalking, conspiracy, defamation, verbal abuse etc which might be useful.

“If you treat everyone with suspicion as a potential criminal then everyone suffers”
This doesn’t follow from what I’m saying. Every shopper is potential shop-lifter, every driver a potential speeder. The police routinely keep an eye on people they think likely to cause trouble. I don’t see why this should be any different.

I do suspect though that the subtext here is that some of us fear that our own off-colour jokes and ‘politically incorrect’ views might attract the attention of the ‘Thought Police’.
Between you and me I don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about.

Vincent said...

I think incitement is already a crime in UK isn't it?

In my reference to treating everyone with suspicion as a potential criminal, I was thinking about criminal record checks before you could help out in a school, that kind of thing, in reaction to an extremely rare case of child abuse & murder.

I contrast old-fashioned sense of community in which "every child was a child of the village" (its misbehaviour could be rebuked by any passing adult, and the parents would usually be grateful for it); with the modern sense of paranoia where you're not sure what behaviour might or might not get you into trouble if you are near children. So whatever they are doing, one is tempted to take the safe option and pass on as if they were invisible. Which is not good for children and could be a contributing factor in the sense of impunity which led to riots.

But these are merely observations. The present ruling generation does what it wants. I'm just an old-timer.

Steve Law said...

I think I'd entirely agree with you regarding our paranoia about adult contact with kids (although there would almost certainly have been a lot more routine child abuse going on in that village than nowadays.)
Yes I thought incitement was a crime too. So what were we arguing about with the thought police, as relates to Hate Crime? It doesn't sound like we disagree.