Reaction: What isn’t wrong with hate crimes legislation

I picked up on an article in the online edition of the Times by John Cloud this morning on the extension of hate crimes legislation in the USA.

Firstly, let me agree with John Cloud on the critical point here: We can neither police what is in someone’s head, nor can we limit their ability to peacefully express their thoughts. This is what freedom of speech as a legislative principle is about. But hate crimes are not free speech, because they’re not speech. Punishing a hate crime more than an ordinary killing, assault, or harassment doesn’t risk punishing people for being wrong- rather, the angle of attack it’s most vulnerable to (and I don’t agree with this, I’m just being straightforward) is that it’s disproportionate punishment.

John claims that this additional strictness in sentencing is to punish someone for thinking bad things. I completely disagree: the extra punishment is because there are two crimes involved, not just one. The obvious crime is the physical or mental harm inflicted by the damage of the crime directly, and John correctly acknowledges that.

However, the less obvious crime is not that minority groups are outraged or encouraged to riot- no, those are reactions, not causes. The less obvious crime is that hate crimes are an act of domination. They tell people of other races, sexualities, or gender identities to shut up, take what they’re given, and to be very afraid that if they don’t comply with what a few violent and hateful individuals think, they will be harassed, hurt, or killed.

While these visions of kyriarchy might be protected inside someone’s head, or as words on paper, or even in a public speech, expressing them as violent crime aimed to intimidate and dominate the wider culture is indeed going further than a regular violent offense, and the harm that these acts of terrorism- and make no mistake, this is how hate crimes are intended to work, to terrify portions of the populace- need to be deterred with whatever extra muscle we can throw at them.

It’s also disingenuous to say that the only thing someone will care about with regard to hate crimes is the actual crime: I care about the motivation because that motivation spreads, and makes it more dangerous for me to be open about who I am, or for transgender people to transition, or for women to be out at night, or any number of other worries that come along with being who you are and doing what you want to. Hate crimes legislation is a strike back, it gives a little more courage, and tells everyone that the government is on your side a little.

John argues hate crimes legislation doesn’t need to extend to private land1 because hate crimes are already falling. I’m going to have to disagree with him that this is a good reason to abandon protective legislation: This law isn’t what’s going to end hate crimes altogether. The biggest reduction to hate crimes will come when everyone can actually understand and empathise with people of different sexualities, races, and gender identities, and I agree that hate crimes legislation, no matter how comprehensive and punitive, will make little difference. The point of hate crimes legislation is to act as a line in the sand, it starts as a symbol and hopefully gets people to think twice about making that leap from merely being wrong, which ought to never be a crime, to doing wrong- which often is. It gives courage to those of us worried about being a victim, and lets us act a little more closely to how free the average rich white guy can. 😉

1I’ll do him the favour of assuming his opposition to the bill proposed is not on the basis of it extending hate crimes protections to include acts of violence based on gender identity or sexual orientation, because I find the idea of someone opposing that appalling. Who knows if that’s optimistic or not?