"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Why I hate "hate-crimes" legislation

The House of Representatives has passed a bill extending the Federal definition of "hate crimes" to "sexual orientation, gender identity or disability." Wishing to avoid getting bogged down in technicalities, I first make the ritual bow to the most technical objection to this bill, which is not so much to the expansion of covered groups but to the provision removing the old requirement that the crime be committed in the course of "federally protected activities" before the Feds get involved. That provision really is an undue expansion of Federal authority in matters traditionally handled by the states. But it is not my fundamental problem with this thing.

My basic objection to all legislation of this sort, be it state or Federal, new or old, is that it treats crimes motivated by prejudice as,
for that reason alone, more heinous than similar crimes not motivated by prejudice. Now I have no idea what philosophical argument one might make for the claim that morally wrong acts motivated by prejudice are, for that reason alone, more wrong than otherwise identical sorts of acts not motivated by prejudice. But that doesn't much matter. The practical idea seems to be that it's important for the good of society that criminals be prosecuted and punished more for victimizing people for who they are than for other motivations they might have. But why create a special class of "crimes" for that purpose? Supposing arguendo that more such crimes are deterred by such laws than would be otherwise—which nobody really knows, and probably can't be proven—one could arguably achieve the same result by mandating stiffer sentences for crimes motivated, in whole or part, by prejudice. But that possibility doesn't seem to interest advocates of "hate-crimes" legislation. What they're really about, it seems to me, is reassuring accredited victim-groups by giving them ostensibly special protection in the form of such laws. But if that is and serves the purpose, it only enhances the victim-groups' sense of entitlement and thus reinforces identity politics. It is not a force for social cohesion. Like so many other initiatives inspired by liberal ideology, it is a breeding ground for the politics of resentment.

To a certain extent, of course, identity politics is inescapable. People involve themselves politically partly for the purpose of making life better for people very much like themselves. But the more we encourage identity politics by how we legislate, the more we tend in practice to emphasize the good of this or that group more than the common good. "Hate-crimes" legislation, like domestic-violence legislation, has just that effect. In practice, such laws are only applied for the protection of some people as distinct from others who are also, in principle, covered by them. Nobody is making an effort to ensure that non-whites be prosecuted under hate-crimes legislation for violent crimes against whites, even though the law as written protects whites as much as non-whites; nobody is making an effort to ensure that women who perpetrate domestic violence are prosecuted under current domestic-violence laws, even though the laws as written are gender-neutral. That's because whites and males are not accredited victim groups. They're the problem. Right?

It's time to think more about the common good. If anybody out there still cares about such a quaint idea.
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