Yesterday, I saw South Yorkshire Police put out the following tweet:
In addition to reporting hate crime, please report non-crime hate incidents, which can include things like offensive or insulting comments, online, in person or in writing. Hate will not be tolerated in South Yorkshire. Report it and put a stop to it #HateHurtsSY pic.twitter.com/p2xf6OLoQZ
— SouthYorkshirePolice (@syptweet) September 9, 2018
Now, there are two particularly disturbing things about this.
First, the suggestion that now ‘non-crime hate incidents’ can be reported and ‘will not be tolerated in South Yorkshire.’ So, as far as I can see, even if you haven’t broken the law, the police will still log an incident and make every effort to make sure your lawful activity will be stopped. That is incredible! Even if you obey the law, and something you say is well within the bounds of the law, you may expect police action of some sort in South Yorkshire.
If you think that a bit over the top, South Yorkshire police helpfully clarified exactly what they meant:
Hi both, we encourage reporting of hate incidents as they can feel like crimes to those affected. They can also escalate into crimes, which we (alongside partners) want to prevent. Further clarification is on our website: https://t.co/yJGyHXT7LM
— SouthYorkshirePolice (@syptweet) September 10, 2018
Hi Richard, this tweet follows an earlier one where we discussed hate crimes. Hate incidents can escalate into crimes & we want to work with partners to try & prevent this from happening. More about this is on our website: https://t.co/yJGyHXT7LM
— SouthYorkshirePolice (@syptweet) September 10, 2018
So, as a preventative measure, South Yorkshire police are going to investigate non-crimes just in case they might have escalated into actual crimes. I struggle to see how this is not totalitarian. Even within the bounds of the law, you may face police action and involvement.
The second thing that is concerning is the definition of hate. A ‘hate incident’ is one in which is ‘perceived to be motivated by prejudice or hostility against a person’s race, faith, disability, gender or sexual identity’ (my emphasis added). So, it matters not what you intended to say. It makes no difference what you actually meant. If another person (not necessarily even the person to whom you were directing your comments) perceives hatred, then a ‘hate incident’ has occurred, even if there was no malicious intent.
Two things bear saying here. First, just how is anybody meant to defend themselves against such accusation? If I feel you were acting in hate toward me, you are guilty of a ‘hate incident’. My perception trumps your intention. There is simply no defence against that – if I perceive it, it has happened, ipso facto.
Now, you may think that totally alarmist. But I am reminded of the person who told me about an incident that happened to them as a serving police officer. They were reported and investigated because somebody perceived that they merely looked at them in such a way that constituted hate. This was a serious complaint that was treated seriously by the police.
My friend was known to be a Christian and there was an implicit assumption about Christian attitudes towards certain people. Regardless of whether that assumption is fair or not, how can a look or a lack of a smile be deemed an act of hate? Who knows why my friend looked the way they did at that particular juncture? Even they didn’t know why they were looking a particular way – as far as they were concerned, they were just walking down a corridor! But perception trumps intent, no matter how illogical or reasonable that may be. And, if this is how the police treat such incidents internally, what hope have those of us without any good will or working relationship got when facing similar charges of perceived hate?
But secondly, what are the parameters on this perception of hate? Can I perceive hatred in literally anything or are there some boundaries to what is and isn’t credibly deemed hateful? Clearly proof has nothing to do with it because you merely have to feel the hatred for your perception to determine that a ‘hate incident’ has, indeed, taken place. Naturally, it is much harder to prove whether someone actually intended to say something hateful and much easier to feel offended and consider that just cause to begin police actions. Are there any circumstances under which the perception of hate would not be considered a hate crime? If I perceived your wearing of a hat as an act of hatred toward me, does that immediately get logged as a ‘hate incident’ regardless of how credible my perception of reality is?
As increasingly unpopular as this position has been, I am firmly against any impediment that seeks to ban speech on the grounds of hate or offence. I do not believe you have a right to not be hated (and I’m not sure these offences stop that anyway) nor do you have the right not to hear hateful comments and offensive speech.
People are generally OK with that until such time as it concerns something they find offensive. Most people abhor racism, for example, and are disgusted at people firing off the N-word to black people (and rightly so!) But to make such things an offence because it is offensive is merely to accept the logical end of impeding speech which was laid out in the starkest terms by South Yorkshire Police yesterday.
I am not saying it is OK to be racist. I’m not even saying it is OK to be rude. Neither is good or right. But when we start banning what people may say – even when it is grossly offensive to most people – we open the door to an increasing number of words becoming verboten and police involvement everytime we say something somebody else doesn’t like. That is simply unacceptable because that means forbidding certain words in a bid to essentially ban certain thoughts. That may seem great when it is racism that most of us rightly abhor; it seems less brilliant when it is a view you happen to hold. The only guarantee that such won’t happen to us is if we are clear that even words and opinions we find deeply and grossly offensive – even hateful – will not be proscribed.
This measure, however, goes a step further still. For the police are suggesting that even if the law hasn’t been broken – a law that is already authoritarian – you may nevertheless face police action. Actions will be recorded as ‘hate incidents’ and you will find a spike in the figures as every perceived sleight gets registered by the authorities. Just remember next time you hear the figures on ‘hate incidents’ that this is anybody, with or without proof, who feels somebody has done or said something hateful. Remember that before you swallow the line that this spike in ‘hate incidents’ requires some further draconian action. It almost certainly doesn’t.