The futility of making the unacceptable illegal
Sir, I have spoken to a number of gay friends who, like your columnist Matthew Parris, are a little perplexed by the Government’s proposal to introduce a measure to outlaw the incitement of hatred against homosexuals, proposed as part of the new Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. In announcing the measure, the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, declared that “It is a measure of how far we have come as a society . . . that we are now appalled by hatred and invective directed at people on the basis of their sexuality.” Precisely so. “It is time for the law to recognise this.”
Why do we need a law to “recognise this”? Society seems to have recognised it pretty well and, as Mr Straw acknowledges, is working things out without any legislative interference from him. One can’t help thinking, with legislation of this nature, that the point at which it becomes politically possible for it to be enacted, is precisely the point when it becomes unnecessary.
It will be interesting to see exactly what words or actions the Government considers should be criminalised that would not already fall foul of public order or incitement laws. A worrying aspect of the initiative is that it appears to be infinitely extendable: witness the fact that the Government has invited two additional groups — the disabled and transsexuals — to “make the case” for the proposed legislation to be extended to them. I am sure that they could make a very good case, as indeed could all those who can claim that they cannot help being the way they are. Men, for example. Or women. Or people with big ears.
This “tick the box if you’d like a law to stop people being rude about you” is one way of filling the legislative programme, but there are serious implications for freedom of speech, humour and creative expression.
The devil, as always, will be in the detail, but the casual ease with which some people move from finding something offensive to wishing to declare it criminal — and are then able to find factions within government to aid their ambitions — is truly depressing.
If both Christians and homosexuals assert their ‘right’ to freedom of speech, then there will inevitably be disagreement. This is healthy, for it is the stuff of life. But the Government is intent on proscribing one in deference to the other, and this is not merely an infringement of the rights of one party; it is a manifest injustice. Homosexuals may not particularly like hearing from Christians that their sexual practices are deviant, and Christians may not like hearing from homosexuals that they are homophobic bigots, but that is what free speech is all about. It may indeed cause offence, but a law to protect people’s (over-)sensitivities is an abuse of the law. And, as Mr Atkinson observes, where should such laws stop? A law to protect people from being called ‘big ears’ may be something of a joke, but consider a recent survey which found that 43% of the general population (26 million people), have experienced prejudice on more than one occasion. Of those who have experienced prejudice:
36% of responds say it was is linked to their gender
34% to their age
31% to their ethnicity
26% to their body weight
19% to the way they dress
17% to their attractiveness/looks
17% to their class
15% to their economic status
12% to a disability
10% to their religion
9% to their hair colour
5.2% to their sexual orientation
12% other reasons
If the Government is intent on legislating for the smallest group of a mere 5.2%, then a fortiori should legislation be passed to protect the sensitivities of the blonde, the poor, the ugly, the fat, those who wear flared trousers, or those who went to Eton College.
And Cranmer has just found this nugget from Rod Liddle:
Under the Religious Hatred legislation, Islam must be afforded our respect as a valid and noble belief system. And yet at the same time, a Muslim who espouses one of its fundamental tenets - that homosexuality is wicked and a sin - might find himself banged up by the old bill for inciting homophobic hatred. And if I were then to say what I believe - that, partly because of its attitude towards gay people, Islam is a vindictive, bigoted and repressive ideology - then I might be banged up too. This is surely ludicrous.
Ludicrous indeed. And even moreso when one considers Leviticus 20:13 and the stance of the Roman Catholic Church. It appears that quoting Scripture on this issue, or advocating the teachings of His Holiness, may soon be against the law of the United Kingdom. And all because New Labour is intent on repaying its Muslim and gay constituencies, in the hope that they will continue their traditional allegiance.