Terence Blacker: Wolf-whistles aren't matters for the courts

Making relatively trivial acts into crimes puts women in the role of victims

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The Great Offensiveness War is about to enter a new phase. Something called "street harassment" is to be the subject of new laws, the Government announced this week. Street harassment is defined as "unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person". If you think that definition covers a wide spectrum of human behaviour, you would be right. A word, a whistle, a look could soon be construed as an assault on another's dignity – "psychological violence", as the statement puts it.

The proposed legislation has been welcomed by the many sincere busybodies who believe that there is too much nastiness in the world, and that it is the job of the state to do something about it. Nastiness should be banned, niceness legally enforced.

The Government, which once argued that there are too many laws, has embraced these new controls. Aware that his party has a blokeish image, the Prime Minister seems to believe – in a typically patronising male way – that banning wolf-whistles will endear him to female voters. Cynically combining the announcement concerning street harassment with another covering the incomparably more serious crime of stalking, the Government's own niceness tsar, Nick Clegg, boasted that higher standards of protection for women would now be in place, with "greater support for victims".

There is something distinctly creepy about this plan to make disrespect a matter for the courts. As it happens, the vast majority of women are not in need of protection. If annoyed by someone who violates their dignity, they are more than able to cope with the situation in their own way without the help of the state.

Women who are genuinely victims are already protected by the law. In fact, making relatively trivial acts into crimes will have the very opposite effect of that intended: it will put women in the role of victims, cowering behind the protection of Nick Clegg and his niceness police.

Nor is it a small matter, putting yet more words and gestures within the reach of the law. Far from empowering individuals, it strengthens the grip of the state on the everyday life of its citizens. Once the idea is accepted that personal nastiness should be illegal, there is no end to the list of words, phrases, expressions and whistles which might upset someone somewhere.

These initiatives are seductive and an illusion of progress. They are an easy vote-winner for politicians, while granting yet more power to them and to the police. But they eat into our freedoms, bringing the law and the state into areas of behaviour that should be the responsibility of individuals. The niceness laws, stealthily extending their control over the way we behave on behalf of the offended, are a threat to us all, women and men.

terblacker@aol.com

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