One of the great problems in today's world is that hate is rather limited in scope. For society to flourish, we really need more hate—or at least a broader understanding of what hate is. Confused? Well, bear with me a moment while I explain.
Last week The Spectator published two articles, one by Brendan O’Neill and one by Kevin O'Sullivan, on the rising prevalence—or, perhaps better, the broadening legal definition and cultural significance—of hate crimes in the United Kingdom. O'Neill outlined the way in which traditional evidence (of the old-fashioned kind that can be assessed using public criteria) is now of little consequence in the pursuit and prosecution of “hate,” and O'Sullivan described his own personal nightmare of being accused of such and fighting desperately—and at great financial cost—to clear his name.
Even allowing for some journalistic hyperbole, the articles are very worrying. In the prosecution of these “crimes,” evidence and even the alleged perpetrator's intent are now discounted, while the victim’s perception takes center stage and is privileged over any other consideration. Of course, O’Neill and O'Sullivan are speaking of events in the United Kingdom, but the underlying political culture they describe is ubiquitous.
Conservatives and old-style (i.e. true) liberals will no doubt see this development as yet more left-wing lunacy. But before we start decrying it as one more triumph for the lobby groups, we should reflect on the affinities between this development and the less politically contentious phenomenon of victim impact statements—something many conservatives welcomed as giving victims a voice. Here, the victims of crime, or (in the case of murder) close relatives or friends of the victim, are allowed to speak to the court during the penalty phase of a trial about how the actions of the defendant have adversely affected them.
But what if someone with no friends or relatives is murdered, a person whose death impacts no one else—say, a homeless man or an elderly single woman with no relatives? Is that crime somehow less evil than the murder of a man with a wife and children? Is that life worth less in the eyes of the law? So it would appear, for otherwise these impact statements would be of no significance at all.
So what do victim impact statements and the concept of hate crime have in common? They both point to an evaluation of the moral significance of criminal acts, and of victimhood, that prioritizes the psychological and the subjective. Those on the Right who welcome victim impact statements as enhancing victims’ rights might want to pause before excoriating those on the Left who favor the rise and expansion of hate crime legislation. These are two aspects of the same tendency to psychologize and subjectivize crime and the law. As such, they are the legal manifestation of our culture's broader redefinition of identity and personhood in psychological terms.
Where will all this end? My suspicion is that it will result in a significant curtailment of freedom of speech, and maybe worse. Given such a deeply embedded privileging of the psychological, the difference between hate crime and thought crime has already become marginal, and it is not hard to imagine that it might vanish entirely. But I also suspect that the emerging category of psychologized crime will be highly selective in what it includes as hate and whom it excludes from victimhood. As laws reflect society’s priorities and aspirations, hate will only be defined in a way that conforms to and is strictly circumscribed by the righteous tastes and practical needs of the privileged emoticrats who police our public morality.
Take, for example, what is perhaps the last traditional taboo in our world, that against the abuse—physical and sexual—of children. As Tony Esolen argues, society is deeply hypocritical here, given that the categories of the physical and the sexual do not comprehend all of those things which damage children. Yet my guess is that the category of hate crime is unlikely to be extended to allow for the indictment of those parents whose infidelity leads to a messy divorce, a broken home, and emotionally hurt children. Nor will it be applied to the husband who unceremoniously dumps his wife because he's suddenly discovered that, gosh, he's been gay all these years and living a lie.
Adultery as a hate crime? Imagine how potent the victim impact statements in those cases would be. And consider, for example, how many of Hollywood's beautiful people might find themselves being led away in handcuffs to do some hard time behind bars. Attractive as that particular prospect might be, it will, sadly, never happen. This is not because the penal system would struggle to cope with such a massive influx of over-indulged and emotionally stunted egotists. In fact, as society already picks up the tab for the impact of the promiscuous lifestyles of the elite on the poor, the economic consequences might be fairly minimal. No, it will be because it is not in the interest of the powerful to see as hate crimes the very real damage they do to others through their untrammeled sexual selfishness. And their victims already stand next to no chance of making impact statements in any influential public venue. When was the last time the abandoned wife and children of a celebrity who had just “come out” were presented by the mainstream media as the injured parties in an act of morally despicable desertion?
So, for the good of us all we really do need more hate in our society—or at least a realization that hate is far more widespread than the metropolitan chatterati would have us believe. But whose hate? And which victims? Those are perhaps the two key questions to ask ourselves in the current emoticratic climate.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.