The Emperor's New Clothes (7 April 2013)

We all disapprove of hate and of crime. But put the two together and it's much less clear cut

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Greater Manchester Police are to collect data on "hate crimes" committed against people who espouse an identifiable alternative subculture, starting with goths, emos, and punks. Three cheers, you think, because no sane person could possibly endorse hate crime, could they?

Well, no sane person would approve of a crime, nor of hatred. But put the two together and there are reasons to feel a little squeamish. How do you define a hate crime? Not difficult when thugs stick the boot into a gay couple while shouting abuse, but more dubious when the boot goes in but the name-calling remains unsaid. Hate crime? Or random thuggery? And even when prejudiced words are used, what's actually going through the mind of the perpetrator is not necessarily clear cut. It might not be hate but an animalistic desire to strike out at someone different from the attacker; or a calculation that the person attacked is so unaggressive, or part of a group so small, the boot can be put in without fear of retaliation. If your nose is broken, is it worse that prejudice rather than drunken aggression did it?

If the police want to keep records of attacks on certain groups, no great harm has been done. And publicising such data may make some yobs think twice before laying into a goth, emo, or punk. It introduces them to the idea that, just because someone is part of an alternative subculture, it doesn't make them less worth protecting than accountants or greengrocers.

You might be tempted to say one looks forward to the day when peace protesters, anti-motorway or HS2 campaigners enjoy the same special regard in police record-keeping. But, if you did, you'd be ignoring the slippery slope that can occur – and has – when police get extra busy on the hate crime front. Too often, what is investigated is not a crime motivated by hate, but something where the sole "crime" is hate, or disapproval, or a sincere objection, however misguided, by current orthodoxy, it might be. Do we really want the police (or Parliament, or anyone) to decide what thoughts, philosophies, or even prejudices – expressed but unacted upon – are "crimes", hate or otherwise?

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