I was disappointed but not surprised to see Concrete publish this article last week about how hate crime laws are supposedly on par with censorship. I wish I was more surprised, but the simple fact is that this opinion isn’t uncommon even though it is eye-wateringly ignorant. It boils down to people flailing their arms and squawking about free speech and the right to an opinion. Well, I’ve got a question for all you believers – why is it more important to you to protect an opinion than it is to protect actual people?
I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve heard and seen people saying that punishing racists, homophobes, transphobes and ableists infringes on free speech. It’s got to the point where I see it and groan – usually because the people touting these opinions aren’t affected by the laws they want to abolish. Do you know what censorship actually is? It’s the banning of books that talk about the true horrors of slavery and colonialism. It’s the erasure of queer and trans people from all kinds of media on the grounds of being anti-family. That’s censorship. Someone being charged with a hate crime because they beat someone up over the colour of their skin? That’s not censorship. That’s the law recognising the motivation behind the crime and reacting accordingly. Motivation is what the article’s author misses out from her charming imagined anecdotal situation of herself punching a black person in the face and then getting charged with a hate crime. You can’t treat that imaginary situation as just one person punching another person. Firstly, I would argue that it would be highly unusual for white-on-black crime not to be racially motivated. Secondly, ignoring the power imbalance means failing to recognise the hundreds of years of oppression and brutality that expose what she views as just a punch as actually being part of a system of anti-black violence that carries on even in the present, with a reported 130 incidents occurring daily in the UK in 2013/14.
Do you know what censorship actually is? It’s the banning of books that talk about the true horrors of slavery and colonialism. It’s the erasure of queer and trans people from all kinds of media on the grounds of being anti-family. That’s censorship.
Hate crimes are charged as hate crimes not to silence an opinion but because the opinion cannot be separated from the violent act itself. The opinion is the motivation. It’s not a person jeering or bullying or violently attacking another person because they don’t like their shoes or they ran into the back of their car. It’s a person jeering or bullying or violently attacking another person because of something fundamental to their identity that is the target of the perpetrator’s illogical hatred. They hate them for being black, for being trans, for being queer, for being disabled, and have decided to abuse them for it – punish them for existing. If they’re so dead set on doing some punishing, why shouldn’t they get a slap on the wrist from the law? If they don’t, who’s going to tell these people that they’re in the wrong? What’s going to prevent more of them from springing up to carry out crimes like writing homophobic slurs on the body of an autistic teenager and then burning him alive at his own birthday party if there isn’t a system out there to tell them that not only is the crime unacceptable, but so is the motivation?
I’m not saying hate crime laws are perfect. It is, after all, quite difficult to get accurate statistics about hatefully motivated violence when the police are quite prone to such acts themselves. Since 1993 there have been nine different incidents where juries have ruled that police have unlawfully killed BAME individuals in their custody in the UK. None of the officers involved in any of those cases have been successfully prosecuted. So, yes, it’s not a perfect system – but having even a farce of a hate crime system is better than nothing at all. It still offers some modicum of protection for the more vulnerable members of our society, who are targeted at disproportionate rates to others and offer no reason to be discriminated against other than just having the gumption to exist in the first place.
It stops being an opinion when it contributes to a system of violence and oppression that, believe me, doesn’t need any help to carry on doing harm.
Honestly, we need to sort out the language we’re using to tiptoe around this subject, because it’s not about protecting an opinion. It stops being an opinion when it contributes to a system of violence and oppression that, believe me, doesn’t need any help to carry on doing harm. It stops being an opinion when homophobic parents stop disowning their children and leaving them homeless. It stops being an opinion when it supports the transphobic beliefs that lead to transwomen of colour being murdered at a higher rate than any other group in society. The existence of hate crime laws is not thought-policing. It’s not stopping racists and homophobes and transphobes and ableists from harbouring their beliefs. But they do exist to punish those who enact those beliefs in such a way that they harm already vulnerable people, and that is absolutely fair. After all, you think with your mind, not with your your fists.
Featured image via Concrete