We are used to our civil liberties in the UK. We are comfortable with them. But this comfort can be dangerous. It makes us careless. We lose our vigilance, that vital vigilance that is the guardian of freedom. There is no better example of the damaging result of this carelessness than the tolerance and enforcement of hate crime laws in the UK.
Hate crime laws are defined as any criminal offence perceived by the victim or anyone else to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s actual or perceived race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or because they are transgender. On the face of it, this seems great. I don’t like racists, I don’t like homophobes, I don’t like ablelists or transphobes. I don’t want to associate with them, I don’t want to live next to them or have a drink with them.
So what is my issue? Let us examine this law. Let us assume I were to punch a black person in the face having just said something derogatory about black people. Under this law, assuming I have been found guilty, my crime would be considered more serious than if I had simply punched the black person with no hint of racist sentiment. There is something fundamentally wrong about that. Why? Because scenario Phoebe, who is an unpleasant racist, is being punished not only for assault but for holding an opinion. That’s thought policing. That’s an infringement of racist Phoebe’s freedom of speech. Racist Phoebe is also prosecutable under the hate crime law even without the assault, for just expressing her thoroughly misplaced beliefs. It’s censorship. The only reason we have not taken to the streets is because we don’t like racists or homophobes or xenophobes. We don’t feel protective over their opinions in the same way we do of those of human rights campaigners in Russia. Indeed, it has come to pass that we are sometimes so busy rightfully calling out the domestic policies of other countries that we fail to properly examine ourselves. Such blindness undermines the message of tolerance that we wish to convey.
As such we must re-acknowledge that to protect our civil liberties means protecting the opinions of those we disagree with and even despise. If their opinions are not safe then no one’s are. Slow erosion of civil liberties is so dangerous because of its speed. It is insidious, like the frog being slowly boiled to death in the pot, unaware that it should jump free because there is no sudden temperature change.
This law does not even decrease hateful sentiment but hides it, though that’s working under the dubious sentiment that this law is even fully functional. Hiding dissent means we can all pat ourselves smugly on the back and talk about how wonderful we are whilst we censor and jail detractors. My mother grew up in Tito’s Yugoslavia where you were disappeared for being too loud in your criticism of the regime. It’s how my great great-grandfather met his end. Except for agitation to violence, free speech must be free. I may not want to listen to some idiot saying ignorant and offensive things to a gay person but I want them to have that right. Even if my inner authoritarian wants to Gaffer tape their mouth shut. Long live Liberty.
The views and opinions outlined in this piece belong entirely to the author, and are not reflective of the views of the wider Editorial team, nor Concrete as a whole.