I hate hate hate crime

Get it? I hate crime. I hate, hate crime. I hate hate crime. I hate, hate hate crime.

OK, I can’t flog this one any further …

Something else that I hate is words being used to refer to things they don’t mean.

The UK Nottinghamshire police force recently defined a new type of hate crime, this time directed against women, to add to the other five types already defined in British law (crimes motivated by hatred towards someone on the basis of their race, sexual orientation, religion, transgender identity or disability).

This has recalled to my attention the fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of ‘hate’ that has unfortunately been committed here: a hate incident is defined as 

any criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a personal characteristic.

(Numerous government publications reference (without source) this 2007 definition of ‘hate crime’ agreed upon by the CPS and police, which one therefore assumes has legal weight.) 

Additionally,

The victim does not have to justify or provide evidence of their belief [that an incident was motivated by hate] – source

Why is this a misunderstanding? Well, what is hate (or hatred)? Both are defined here as ‘intense dislike’. A person can feel intense dislike for another person, and the other person can (but may not always) experience the effects of this intense dislike. A person may report that they experience the effects of intense disliking, but it would not be true to say that they are indeed experiencing the effects of intense disliking unless intense dislike is in fact the cause of those effects, i.e. unless intense dislike is actually felt by the accused. If intense dislike is not felt, then it certainly cannot affect others; the person may be experiencing something, but it is not hate. How can a crime be called a hate crime if it potentially has nothing to do with hate? 

Alright, so this is a bad use of language, what’s new. And who cares if they’ve redefined the word ‘hate’ anyway? Language changes, language use reflects society, reflects the way we think. There’s no point ring-fencing one particular meaning and chaining it to a single word. Since meaning changes gradually and by popular agreement, the risk that a field of meaning will be poorly understood or defined is minimal: we generally know what the words we use refer to. So it’s clear that if I say I know my mother well, I don’t mean it in the Biblical sense. That may all be true, but the problem here is that the word is being redefined before our very eyes; it hasn’t gradually changed in popular usage such that the Oxford English Dictionary will recognise it afterwards; this is a top-down redefinition imposed by a powerful institution (this should set off any self-respecting social justice activist’s alarm bells). Not only that, but this redefinition has very tangible negative effects.

The concept of hatred as properly understood is very emotive. Hatred is a powerful emotion, and the idea that one group might hate another, particularly if the other is a minority or perceived to be oppressed in some way, is inflammatory. Our instinct is that we should not hate or be hated, and perhaps that expressions of hatred should be discouraged through ostracism or, in the worst cases, punished through the legal justice system.

So if we get this wrong and start calling things hate that aren’t hate, we will (if only by pure association) end up treating non-hate as worthy of the same frowning-upon, ostracism, and punishment as we accord actual hate. In this case, we have a particular problem because if you punch a Welsh person simply because you don’t like the Welsh, you can be punished more severely than if you punch him because he stole your drink, or even just because you like punching people (raising the question of whether it’s worse to commit a crime for a bad reason or to commit it for no reason at all…).

Arbitrary redefinition = not good, but there is something else going on here. When I distinguished between the feeling of hatred that motivates a crime, and the feeling of being hated that, you assert, motivated a crime, the difference I was getting at is that ‘I feel intense dislike’ is a fact; whereas ‘I feel that I am intensely disliked’ is a feeling that is not necessarily indicative of the fact, that may well be as inconsequential as it is unpleasant.

Hate crime policies, by their definition, privilege the feelings of the victim over the facts about the accused and his/her behaviour. Legislating according to feelings is a problem because the reason we have courts, and right to representation, and judges and juries, is to give us the best chance of teasing out the facts that are relevant to whether the law was broken. In a hate crime case, you will theoretically face the absurd situation of spending days deciding whether Mr Roe punched Ms Wade, only to have the defence placidly roll over and take whatever harsher sentence is bolted on because Ms Wade felt that Mr Roe punched her because she was a woman. There’s no defence against feelings, so we have a judgement made, a life radically changed, without the need for evidence of facts or proof. This is very worrying.

Now I’ve sat in court, and I can see very well that the judge’s statement of the matter is a statement of what they have been able to glean and how they have been able to interpret it, not the gospel truth sent down from heaven. There’s also an element of probability rather than absolutes, in the fact that judgements are made according to whether the statements of fact can be proved beyond reasonable doubt and not beyond all doubt. However, the disparity between what you might call legal truth (the version of events agreed upon in court and set out in the judgement) and actual truth is much less problematic (i.e. it’s necessary to accept it) than the abandonment of any basis in fact whatsoever.

Let’s be clear: I do hate people being prejudiced, and I do hate them expressing their prejudice in a criminal or other manner. But we have a bigger problem, potentially, if the powers that be are going to hate on truth as well. We become very muddled indeed if we allow anyone the free pass of not having to defend, let alone prove, their claim in court – or anywhere else. In the arena of traditional media, we seem to be fairly well bolstered against this issue, as the accused have recourse to  libel and defamation suits. The arena of social media is rather more of a Colosseum situation when the lions are let out; look at what happened to Sir Tim Hunt if you don’t think there is a problem here. We can’t allow ‘trial by Twitter’ to become actual trial methodology; we not only become muddled, but we might as well not bother with the justice system at all. I daresay it would save a lot of public money, but it would be the worst kind of government austerity I can imagine.

If you think this trend towards privileging feelings and experiences over facts that I blogged about previously is ‘purely academic’ or otherwise harmless and fringe, you can think again. It’s here, and it’s legally enshrined*. That one can be found to have committed a certain type of crime simply because someone else thought so and not because it was proved to have actually happened is far more distressing to me than catcalling.

 

* Well, in the sense that it appears to have real force in the justice process. ‘Hate crime’ aside, the similar ‘racially or religiously aggravated crimes’ are defined in an actual law (Crime & Disorder Act 1998) in which there does, fortunately, seem to be room to require proof of motivation: the aggravation is present ‘if […] the offence is motivated (wholly or partly) by hostility [towards a group]’ – source. Whether X = Y is something that can be argued in court. Whether I felt that X = Y is not up for debate.

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