THE SNP leadership’s controversial Hate Crime Bill has stumbled past its first stage of parliamentary approval. The Bill had received widespread criticism over phrases like “stirring up hatred”, with critics ranging from police officers calling it unenforceable to free speech advocates worrying it would be liberally enforced against anyone and everyone.
In fairness to Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf, the volume of criticism levelled at this Bill seems to have inspired an unusual willingness to listen. It has been significantly amended along the road, and opposition backing seems to be premised on giving the Government leeway to fulfil its promises of further protections for freedom of expression. In some ways, this can be cast as a victory for the aisle-crossing politics of good faith.
However, there are worrying signs that the debate is falling back into a misleading left-right polarisation between Conservatives as “defenders of free speech” and Holyrood’s various liberal parties as “defenders of minorities”. The assumption being that leftists of all stamps have little investment in freedom of speech. And here lies the biggest danger of all.
Certainly, there are circumstances where hate speech can be authentically dangerous and where police should have powers to act. “Stirring up hatred” can be a frighteningly real phenomenon for both minorities and majorities, from fascist groups mobilising outside mosques to religious fundamentalists menacing women seeking abortions. Few will deny the need to prosecute these cases; the only question is whether new powers are needed to do so.
Equally, in today’s online environments, virtually every opinion, disagreeable or not, can be rebranded as hate speech. More or less any controversial view can even be labelled fascistic, a phenomenon now so common that it has its own name, Godwin’s law, which claims “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”. While some of the Nazi comparisons are merely humour in questionable taste, many, fired by the adrenalin of online discussion, are genuinely intended as serious comparisons.
Many who engage in these polemics would describe themselves as part of leftist traditions. And they seem to engage in these behaviours with little thought of consequences. But I see at least two obvious risks. Firstly, by inflating talk of hate speech and “fascism” to include the gamut of weird and wonderful opinions, the words lose their power to call out genuinely hateful, organised fascists. Secondly, when hatefulness becomes entirely subjective, an opinion that feels oppressive to me, this discourse can be used against genuinely progressive causes just as much as conservatives.
Indeed, the victims of online “cancel culture”, more often than not, have been the left themselves. Recent events in the Labour Party are illustrative of that. Or, to take another example, lifelong gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was no platformed simply for defending other people’s right to free speech. Not only that, Tatchell himself was labelled a racist and a transphobe. And there seemed to be no allowance whatsoever for his lifetime of passionate commitment, which has seen him sustain permanent brain injuries standing up to the thugs of Putin and Mugabe. The tone was far from, “more in sadness than in anger…” Instead, as Tatchell himself put it, there was “a witch-hunting, accusatory atmosphere”.
Lest we forget, the Parliament has been here before, with the illiberal Offensive Behaviour Act, which, for all its putative good intentions, became a means of menacing Irish identity and displays of solidarity with oppressed people across the world. Hopefully, sufficient lessons have been learned from that notorious social experiment.
If this Bill proceeds, we should ask ourselves whether we can be trusted with it. Can we begin to distinguish, in good faith, genuinely toxic and violence-promoting speech from merely conservative opinions? Or from views we simply dislike? At stake here, on both sides of this debate, is tolerance. And, more broadly, to what extent the state becomes involved in arbitrating on it. Historically, these questions have been just as meaningful for socialists and communists as for conservatives. Indeed, substantially more so.