The problem of criminalising hate speech in the family home

I have long been against the concept of criminalising ‘hate speech’. I am, by and large, a free speech absolutist. I draw the line at outright lies and inciting violence. Otherwise, I think people should be able to say what they want in whatever terms they want, no matter how offensive and hateful the rest of us may find it.

But it seems the Scottish Justice Minister thinks different. The Times (paywall) have reported that Humza Yousaf has stated:

Are we comfortable giving a defence to somebody whose behaviour is threatening or abusive which is intentionally stirring up hatred against, for example, Muslims? Are we saying that that is justified because that is in the home? . . . If your intention was to stir up hatred against Jews . . . then I think that deserves criminal sanction.

The problem here is a failure to distinguish between what proper and what is permitted. That is, there are some things I don’t think people should say (or think). But that is not the same as believing they should be permitted to say (or think) them.

I don’t like anti-Muslim sentiment, antisemitism or variant forms of racism any more than anyone else. I don’t think expressing those sentiments are good things to say or think. In my view, people should not say them. But that is different to insisting that they will not be permitted to say them. I think they should be free to voice those sentiments if they so wish, just as the rest of us are free to express our clear displeasure at the thoughts being given expression.

The rise of ‘hate speech’ laws has proven a problem. Who, exactly, gets to define what is hateful? Worse, it seems, certain groups with ‘protected characteristics’ are frequently shielded from assumed hateful comment whilst others are simply told to wear it. What is deemed hateful to one group is not, apparently, always deemed hateful to another.

But what has now been proposed in Scotland goes further still. No longer is the threat of spreading hate now deemed an issue, but the mere expression of one’s own personal view, in a home, will become an offence. It is difficult not to see that as anything other than totalitarian thought policing. These laws are not brought in to stop the spread of hate – foolish as I think efforts to try and do, no matter how well intentioned, that might be – but are now designed to stop people thinking their own thoughts such as they are not deemed acceptable by the state.

Of course, this all seems very reasonable when it is targeted toward views and opinions we find objectionable. If you happen to hate racism – as quite a lot of people do – then it seems totally reasonable to clampdown on those who express racist thoughts. But once that principle has been sold – the view that words should be criminalised – we open the door to any view that stands against state orthodoxy being written into law as a matter of verboten hatred.

I appreciate few people on the left will want to be defending Tommy Robinson’s right to express the bile he often does, but we must recognise that such is no different to the McCarthyite view to ‘Reds under the bed’ that leftists recognise as properly problematic. All it takes is a government deciding left-wing attitudes are just as hateful and problematic as those on the far right for their words and thoughts to be policed in the same way. You don’t have to like the target of the legislation to see the serious consequences it poses for everybody.

Nor does one need to do a lot of digging to see how these sorts of powers have been applied already. Harmless street preachers have been arrested for daring to utter words and thoughts that were deemed unacceptable. Whether we like the medium they use, or think them particularly wise in the things they speak about or the way they speak about them, we surely can’t believe that a street preacher attempting to share the gospel as they understand it is in any way akin to those stirring up racial unrest. Even if we do think that, clearly they were not the originally intended target of these measures and yet they frequently seem to be on the receiving end of these powers.

Similarly, it doesn’t take much to see how governments will use such powers at their own convenience. How many of us remember Tony Blair using relatively newly granted terror-related powers to eject a peaceful protestor from the Labour Party Conference because he was an inconvenience? How many of us recall the use of such powers to remove demonstrators, as it suits, from outside parliamentary buildings? Once the principle has been sold, it doesn’t take much for the state to deem particular views and opinions a similar inconvenience and ensure that they are not to be spoken.

Many of us have been warning about this creep for a number of years. It was often waved away as if, so long as you aren’t saying anything outlandish, you have nothing to worry about. Except, of course, the definition of what is deemed outlandish has come closer and closer to home. Until, now, the Scottish government are literally proposing snooping in homes so as to criminalise families for their wrongspeak. If I were resident in Scotland, I would find that a very worrying move. The fear for the rest of us is that what flies elsewhere in the UK is often brought to bear elsewhere. If that powergrab passes without too much bother north of the border, it may not be long before Westminster see fit to utilise it across the rest of the UK.

Once again, you do not have to be a racist-sympathiser to get the point. One doesn’t have to affirm racism to make the case that people should, nonetheless, be allowed to express it. It is the same as not having to affirm Atheism, Islam or Christianity (depending on which you don’t believe), to recognise that Atheists, Muslims and Christians should all be free to express their particular religious beliefs. Increasingly, however, there have been moves to insist that various of their teachings and beliefs are definitionally hateful and to therefore express orthodox belief – so far as those respective positions go – is also, then, a hate crime.

As I have said a number of times on this blog, the only guarantee that we can say the things we want to say – no matter how important we think they are – is to rigorously defend the right of other people to say the things they want to say. It doesn’t matter how much we dislike it, it doesn’t matter how much we disagree with it, it doesn’t matter how hateful and offensive we may find it. If we won’t ensure speech is free for all, you can bet your bottom dollar it soon won’t be free for anybody.