Friday, November 16, 2007

Hate Crimes: A Conservative guide

Unity has a pop here at Iain Dale's opposition to the proposed crime of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexuality. I'm not sure he's being entirely fair to Iain, but that's not the central point of this article. I'm going to try to articulate what I believe to be a properly Conservative attitude towards this rather inchoate crime of incitement to hatred on any basis.
The shortest answer to this is that it is a legislative absurdity. 'Hatred' was first introduced as a concept in English law, as Unity says, in the Public Order Act of 1986, which introduced a crime of inciting hatred on racial grounds. Unfortunately, for the cause of legislative certainty, 'Racial hatred' was defined as
'hatred against a group of persons [...] defined by reference to colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins'
That is, of course, a rather circular definition. Hatred itself is not defined, leaving the centre of the legislation shadowy and subjective. This leads to problems. Iain Dale says that he does not want a situation where calling someone a 'poof' is illegal. Unity retorts that it wouldn't be under the proposed legislation, and suggests someone saying 'Kill the poof' as an alternative. But saying 'Kill the poof' is already an offence - it's incitement to murder. If creating an offence of incitement to hatred is to mean anything, it must surely be something that is not already illegal - otherwise what on Earth is the point?
It isn't illegal to hate somebody - no matter how bizarre or bigoted your rationale for doing so. This is at least partly because there is no definition of hatred - no objective test for it. Making it an offence to incite someone to be in an entirely legal state seems odd. There is precedent I suppose: it is legal to commit suicide, but illegal to incite somebody to do so, but this does seem a bit different.
A Conservative critique then, says that this law is either a repetition of existing laws on inciting violence, or an entirely subjective and undefined offence. What is hatred? How do you incite it? Can you, as someone suggested, incite hatred of yourself by your actions? Would a cleric damning homosexuals as hell-bound be guilty under this law, and would someone condemning what they said be guilty of inciting religious hatred? The concept is ill-considered. I am not an absolutist on free speech. I agree with the concept of laws against incitement. I agree with the principle, if not the practice, of laws against defamation. But this proposed law is altogether too woolly: it is legislation as moral statement.

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