Hate is wrong, but it should not be criminal

Hate is just emotion, however distasteful the comment, whomever the target. It should not be prosecutable, unless it becomes incitement or violence, says Margaret Hickey

Hate is wrong, but it should not be criminal

Hate is just emotion, however distasteful the comment, whomever the target. It should not be prosecutable, unless it becomes incitement or violence, says Margaret Hickey

‘You f***king Catholic toe-rag’ sounds like hate speech, but I doubt if the person to whom it was directed, Catholic journalist and columnist, David Quinn, is campaigning for hate crime legislation. Conservative commentators like Quinn get long, snaking threads of hostile, hateful comment online, but also on public transport, in bars, and on the street, where this particular taunt was shouted.

Spontaneous ill-will is considered par for the course for pundits and politicians. It’s regrettable and deplorable, but it says more about the person delivering the abuse than the one at the receiving end. But a verbal assault delivered in person is more menacing than something said on social media.

Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell said that “in politics you get abuse all the time.” Former FG justice minister Alan Shatter was the object of “a tirade of abuse from an Irish guy” in the middle of a French airport terminal.

He also received anti-Semitic mail at his home. Abuse tends to veer towards ad hominem attacks that focus on the personal, often characterised by racial or ethnic slurs.

Personal attacks are always hurtful. However, we protect some sensitivities more than others. If you replace the word ‘Catholic’, in the opening sentence, with ‘Muslim’, ‘Jewish’, or ‘Chinese’ and read it back to yourself, you will see how the register changes. There are terms immediately to hand to describe all three variants: they are Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia.

Despite the fact that Christians are overwhelmingly the most persecuted people on the planet, ‘Christophobia’ is an unfamiliar, rarely heard term.

Saying bad things about Christians doesn’t seem as bad.

But ‘hate speech’ and ‘hate crime’ should cover everybody equally, if they are to be applied at all. Singling out one group for special protection could be counter-productive, if it makes other marginal groups resentful. Everybody should be able freely to go about their business without being harassed in public spaces. However, clamping down on hate speech on social media and comment pages is difficult without also curbing freedom of expression.

Hazel Chu, a Green Party councillor in Dublin, has suffered racist taunts via email. It is particularly galling to be called ‘a migrant’ when you were born in Ireland to parents who worked and paid taxes here since they arrived as young adults. But we need to ask how pervasive and representative this racism is, before ushering in ‘hate’ legislation that is open to exploitation by the prevailing ideological consensus.

Hazel Chu reported anonymous phone calls, an unspecified number of emails, and an aborted online call for her resignation (it mustered 14 signatures out of a target of 100). This hardly justifies branding the country racist and in need of legislation to address hate crime.

Hazel Chu
Hazel Chu

Compared to the level of support Chu received when she was elected, on the first count with a double quota, to the Pembroke ward of Dublin City Council, and the thousands of positive endorsements her Twitter posts receive, her comment that there is “an undertone of people who discriminate against others in Ireland” seems harsh.

Every society has people who discriminate against others. However, Ireland scores well when it comes to welcoming strangers. That is why Ireland is among the countries that migrants seek to enter.

Our primary schools have high numbers of children of all ethnicities. The reason we hear reports of racist comment is because there is so much ethnic diversity in our workplaces and social spaces. Progress inevitably comes with its bumps. But problems must be addressed in a way that is commensurate with their scale.

Public transport, with its pressures and challenges, is particularly prone to incidents of racial tension, because as Bus Eireann inspector Richard Adewuyi said, “people who are upset go for what will wound most — often, that is a racist comment. I don’t think that means people are racist, but it shows just how important education is.

Our children need to know certain words are loaded and can cause serious harm.

Education will not eradicate racist comment, because it hasn’t eradicated other forms of abusive comment that targets any one of the many things that make us stand out from those around us.

However, education and the experience of living, learning, and working with others in an increasingly diverse society is the best solution to all forms of intolerance and discrimination. According to Steven Pinker, in his book Enlightenment Now, tolerance of diversity is best guaranteed in societies that have high levels of education and prosperity. Ignorance, coupled with adversity, tends to make people turn on each other in a blame game.

That means minorities and newcomers are often the first targets.

Pinker doesn’t support any curbs to free speech, but many others who claim to support Enlightenment values, as he does, are quick to exploit violations against minorities and turn them into opportunities for controlling public conversation.

Repressive regimes like nebulous terms such as ‘hate’, because they are so malleable. Hate is a sentiment. It can be appropriate or nasty, depending on how it is directed. It should not be criminalised, unless it crosses a line into incitement, or worse.

We don’t need hate legislation. But we may need legislation to empower the gardaí to intervene when citizens are harassed, however or wherever that happens. The law should be proportionate and alert to unintended consequences.

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