“I would not open windows into men’s souls.” (Queen Elizabeth I)
I confess I fail to understand the principle of ‘hate crime’. To hate someone is probably a sin but it isn’t a crime. If I beat my neighbour into a pulp, from which injuries he dies, I would be a murderer and deserve the full weight of the law brought down on my head but there ought to be no tariff of punishment depending on whether my motivation had been hatred of him because he was ginger/Jewish/Brexiteer/homosexual/black/public school/whatever. My prejudice against any of those groups might make me not a very nice person but no criminal. The act of murder would. I am intrigued, and not a little worried, by the blurring of lines between the thought and the action.
There was a time of course when you could be prosecuted for your beliefs. Heretics were burnt at the stake. Protestants and Catholics persecuted each other and many were executed for their faith. Queen Elizabeth I had seen enough of religious intolerance during the reigns of her brother (Edward VI, a Protestant) and her sister (Mary, a Catholic) and on her succession tried her best to steer a middle course between the two extremes. “I would not open windows into men’s souls,” she said and was notoriously squeamish and slow to sign any death warrant. However, if a subject’s beliefs led to plots, sedition, insurrection and threats to the state then that would be treason and the full weight of the law, usually in the form of an axe, would fall on his neck. She did not solve the Catholic problem in Protestant England but slowly, the passion for killing in the name of religion died out (in this country, at any rate). It is a sad fact that bigotry, prejudice, intolerance, dogmatism, hatred of another’s point of view, are all part of the human condition and will never die out but England does have an enviable tradition of freedom of expression and respect for the law.
Or did. Where has the propensity for forbearance gone? The soldiers of hate crime, political correctness, no-platforming, virtue signalling, victimhood, sanctimoniousness, priggishness, non-this, non-that, non–the other are gathering their forces to the point where you cannot make a joke without fear of offending someone. It’s all become a little surreal. It certainly is quite a change from the era in which I grew up, or at least started to form my own opinions and philosophy. At university in the 1960s, nobody worried about what you said or how you behaved. For the first time in my life, I was exposed to all sorts of people, way out of my comfort zone, light years away from the protected environment of my childhood. Everybody was relaxed (some were so laid back they disappeared in a purple haze, if you get my meaning), ideas were kicked around, preposterous views exchanged, marches planned, strikes organised, utopian visions imagined, alternative lifestyles outlined but nobody took offence and in the end we all ended up in the same examination hall. I’m not sure the current generation of students has the fun – and the experience – we had. Back then, it was all about what you could do; now it seems all about what you mustn’t do.
It is the beginning of a slippery slope when you start to tell people what to think. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s dystopian vision of a totalitarian state, ‘thoughtcrime’ was the criminal act of holding unspoken beliefs and doubts that went contrary to the theories of the state. Dissidents were ruthlessly hunted down and dealt with. Deliberately, Orwell fused the two words, ‘thought’ and ‘crime’ – philosophically separate concepts – into one word, thus turning upside down our understanding of individuality and its flexible relationship with society. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, there was no such thing as freedom of thought, let alone freedom of expression.
Which brings me back to hatecrime – I do beg your pardon, I mean hate crime. If not exactly mutually exclusive, the two words mean two clean different things and should not be mixed up. “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” said Hamlet. In other words, it is in the human psyche, the thought processes that go on in our brain, where good and evil reside. If someone looks at us, why do we sometimes interpret as a positive gesture and sometimes as a negative gesture? That debate I shall leave to the psychiatrists. But it is true that some people lack a defence mechanism that prevents most of us acting on our inner, ugly prejudices (and we all have them, let’s be honest). If we were living under the oppressive regime of Big Brother in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, we would all be sought out by the Thought Police and sent for ’retraining’ (ie, torture) in the Ministry of Love. But we’re not. We believe we still live in a world where the state does not make windows into our souls.
There are two principles at stake here as ‘hate crime’ gains credence. The first is accuracy of language. If one person uses a word to mean one thing and somebody else uses it to mean something completely different, then chaos reigns. I was disturbed the other day when the murder of a black youth in south London was described in a television report as a hate crime because it was racially motivated. I take issue with the lazy use of language. Murder is murder whatever the motive. Secondly, does thinking something make it so? If the perpetrator had sheathed his knife on second thoughts and passed on his way without taking action, no crime would have been committed, no matter what a thoroughly disagreeable racist he may be. He has a right to be racist. Yes, even if he gives voice to his disreputable opinions. As Voltaire, the famous 18th Century French philosopher, declared, “I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Uncomfortable for us at times but that is the basis of a liberal democracy. Hate crime to me sounds very much like an insidious attack on those hard-won principles.