I never got around to bemoaning the government’s plans to make homophobic attacks a new “hate crime”. Ever since the idea of religious hatred was outlawed I’ve become increasingly sceptical of this new type of legislation; in most cases it does little more than add a little more public “tut-tutting” to something that is already a crime. In some cases (though in practice not often) it can interfere with freedom of speech and the right to criticise. In many more cases it creates a culture whereby people self-censor rather than risk opprobrium and possible legal action. And even where homophobia is endemic – specifically schools and the problem of homophobic bullying – it is hard to see what such a law will do since it is an issue which affects heterosexual kids as much as young lesbians and gays. Do we lessen the sentence because the victim happens to not be gay? Is the clunking fist of the law the best way to solve what is at heart a problem of discipline in schools?
The bullying aspect raises its ugly head again in the announcement yesterday to legislate against inciting hatred against disabled people. The article refers to levels of bullying directed at disabled people appears to be on the rise, but quickly apportions the blame on “happy slapping culture”. It doesn’t seem to be a deep-seated hatred of disabled people, just a general human tendency to pick on anyone who is different. We simply can’t go down a list of differences and make incitement of hatred against them illegal. Where to red-haired people and extremely freckly people fit into all this for example? Anyone who has ever had a childhood can attest that these two overlapping groups are, one of the main, possibly the main, victims of bullying. Yet I can’t see any serious politician legislating against the incitement to ginger hatred.
Bullying isn’t about hatred; it’s about fear – of both parties – and control. I know from personal experience that the line between victim and bully is an extremely fine one: gain a couple of inches in height and you stop being the fat kid everyone picks on and transform into a walking brick shit house that no-one messes with. It’s a cycle of violence and one which I only just broke free of (I like to think). But all too often it is about lashing out at anyone rather than face up to your own feelings of inadequacy.
None of that can be dealt with by hate crime legislation and we would be foolish to attempt to do so. We would criminalise unsympathetic but nonetheless vulnerable people and lose all sense of proportion.