Brendan O’Neill

The problem with hate crime | 16 October 2018

The problem with hate crime | 16 October 2018
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It always amazes me that people think it is normal and acceptable to have hate-crime legislation. To have laws which allow for the harsher punishment of people who entertain prejudiced thoughts while committing an offence. To have it written into the actual statute books that the man who punches a Buddhist because he hates Buddhism can be punished more severely than the man who punches a Buddhist because he hates that individual Buddhist for some reason. When are we going to twig that this represents the punishment of thought, of ideology, of belief (warped belief, but still)? I don’t like that Britain has become a country in which people, especially the political class, think it is okay for the state to punish individuals for what they think.

Hate crime is back in the news following the Home Office’s release of new data this morning. They claim hate crime is rising. Between April 2017 and March 2018, there were a record 94,098 hate-crime incidents. This represents a 17 per cent rise from the previous year. It sounds terrible, and I’m sure there were indeed some dreadful crimes and incidents. But we should be sceptical about any talk of a hate-crime epidemic. As the Home Office itself says, the rise in hate-motivated crimes doesn’t necessarily show that Britain has become consumed by racism or homophobia or hostility to Muslims; it is more likely down to the fact that people are more willing to report hate crimes, and the police are more willing to record things as hate crimes.

In fact, this doesn’t quite capture the dramatic shift in the police’s attitudes to hate crimes in recent years. The police are not only more willing to log hate crimes — they actively go looking for them and make it as easy as possible for them to be added to the crime-stat logs. The idea of ‘hate crime’ is alarmingly, and uniquely, subjective. The official definition of a hate crime is ‘any criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice to someone based on a personal characteristic’. So if anyone, literally anyone, thinks the chucking of a stone at the window of a Muslim family’s house was motivated by hatred for Muslims, it is recorded as a hate crime. Even if that wasn’t the motivation. Even if the person who threw the stone is just an idiot who likes throwing stones.

Evidence is not necessary at any level when it comes to defining a crime as a hate crime. As the police’s hate crime operational guidance makes clear, ‘Evidence of... hostility is not required for an incident or crime to be recorded as a hate crime or hate incident... the victim does not have to justify or provide evidence of their belief.’ So the victim’s word is gospel. If a transgender person’s shed is burnt down in an arson attack, and that transgender person believes the attack was motivated by transphobia, then it is recorded as a hate crime. Don’t dare to ask for evidence of said transphobia — as the operational guidance makes clear, ‘police officers... should not directly challenge [the victim’s] perception’. So anyone can say, ‘this crime was motivated by hatred’, and the police won’t ask any questions. Bear that in mind next time you see shock newspaper headlines about a hate epidemic.

But beyond being sceptical of the claim that Britain is becoming a more hateful place, we should call into question the entire idea of ‘hate crime’. A hate crime is any offence in which it is believed — by anyone, without evidence — that hatred for a protected characteristic was a motivating factor. Currently there are five protected characteristics: race, sexual orientation, religion, disability status, and transgender identity. Commit a crime while feeling hatred on the basis of any of those things and you’ll very likely receive a stiffer punishment. Burn down a shop and you might get a couple of months in jail — but burn down a shop because the owners are Hindu and you’ll get longer in jail.

There is a very serious problem with this: it means people are in jail for what they think. Right now. The man who burns down a shop deserves to be in jail, of course. But if he is given an extra few months’ jailtime because of his hateful thoughts, because he has a problem with Hinduism, then for that period, for those extra months, he is in jail because of his beliefs. We can all agree his beliefs are foul and depraved, but so what? Many beliefs are. It is sometimes the role of the state to punish people for what they do — to other people or to property — but it should never be the role of the state to punish people for what they think.

Yet instead of questioning the concept of ‘hate crime’, people want to expand it. The Law Commission is exploring the possibility of making misogyny, misandry and even hatred for groups like goths and punks into aggravating factors that can make a crime a hate crime and lead to tougher penalties. This is an outrage. It would mean the state punishing someone partly because they don’t like goths. How did we get here? Hate crime is thoughtcrime. Hate crime brings in belief-policing by the backdoor. Hate-crime legislation should be repealed, not extended.