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How over-protective laws are courting disaster for inclusive society


Legal battle: Ulster mum Nicola McNamee after being dismissed from her bakery job when she became pregnant with daughter Melissa Rose

Legal battle: Ulster mum Nicola McNamee after being dismissed from her bakery job when she became pregnant with daughter Melissa Rose

Legal battle: Ulster mum Nicola McNamee after being dismissed from her bakery job when she became pregnant with daughter Melissa Rose

It is reported that the new Irish junior minister for equality, new communities and culture, Aodhan O Riordain, is planning to strengthen "hate crime" legislation. The intention is to protect people with disabilities, immigrants, the Roma and traveller communities against being the objects of "hate" speech or, presumably, actions.

This is a common reflex of certain politicians. Identify something that's "offensive" – and pass a new law to prohibit it.

If something is bad, ban it. If something is transgressive, censure it. Bully people into virtuous compliance.

Look, being rude or unkind to minorities, or vulnerable people of any category is horrible.

But whatever became of good manners? Whatever became of imparting the idea that a lady or a gentleman does not hurt the feelings of others?

Oh, I forgot. We're not supposed to use terms like "lady" and "gentleman" any more, as that would offend against the notion of equality.

A "gentleman" who offers a "lady" a seat on public transport now is as likely to be lambasted out of it for "patronising" or "patriarchal" attitudes as gracefully thanked.

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But if you don't promote gentle manners in any society, you surely will have more "hate crime".

I stand in various queues – notably, at my local post office, and digest the notices which ask me to desist from answering my mobile phone while carrying out a transaction with the post office official. It's pathetic that people have to be told that it's rude to conduct a telephone conversation in this situation.

I observe other public notices, too, including on buses, and in hospital admittance wards, informing me that staff are entitled to do their jobs without being sworn at, called rude names or physically threatened. Indeed so. But no politician's law will teach the uncouth that coarse language directed towards a public servant, let alone violent threats, is wrong. That has to be transmitted through the cultivation of good manners.

Trying to control everything by legislation often backfires, anyhow. A glaring example of this lies with various Freedom of Information acts. Freedom of Information is a good thing: citizens are empowered to hold governments, bureaucracies and businesses to account once they can access the information. Transparency rules!

But does it? Both in Ireland and in Britain, less and less is written down now in the corridors of power. Conversations take place of which there is no record. In Germany, there has been a surge in the purchase of typewriters, so that letters and notes can be written for which there is no electronic trace. When there are too many laws, people resort to other, inventive means to evade them. One of the reasons why there is so much demand for (often unregulated) baby surrogacy, particularly in Australia, is that the bar has been set so impossibly high for adoption.

I reiterate: it is deplorably rude, unkind and nasty to express hatred of vulnerable persons, but if a law is over-protective of any group, there are also negative outcomes.

Firstly, people find more underhand ways to dodge the law. A young woman here in Northern Ireland, Nicola McNamee, recently won £23,000 from a bakery, which had sacked her when she became pregnant, though she said she had no plans to start a family. Nobody should be dismissed for pregnancy, but small businesses are increasingly wary of hiring women who are at child-bearing age.

Secondly, over-protective legislation gives groups of people a "victim" status, and a "victim" mentality to go with it.

Teachers in Britain are now extremely careful about reprimanding some kids from ethnic backgrounds, because the said kids – and their mothers – can be so quick to say "You're only picking on me for racist reasons".

This reflex doesn't necessarily make all teachers less racist – in private, they may hold some quite stereotyped views – but it can make them more devious about issuing corrections either for poor work or bad behaviour.

And a teacher who fails to correct a pupil is, truly failing that pupil, because nobody can learn without correction.

Some black pupils fall behind in school achievement because teachers, so desperately anxious not to be accused of racist attitudes, don't dare even to show disapproval of below-par standards. So the kids go out into the world with a rubbish education, which is a greater disadvantage than being a member of any "victim" group.

True, immigrants into most societies have endured a hard apprenticeship. The Irish – and the Jews – did so in Britain in times gone by, and in America too.

There will always be some rough edges around the experience of adjusting to another society, if only because immigrants traditionally work for cheaper wages than the indigenous community – Engels lambasted Irish immigrants for under-cutting the British labourers' wages.

But if you nominate immigrant groups as "victims" by law, they may be even more resented by host communities.

And you may deprive the incomer of developing personal skills in adjusting to the host community.

Is dreaming up new categories of "hate crime" just a displacement activity for failing to deter existing crime?

Why not tackle the serious issue articulated recently by Irish judge Pat McCartan that the current criminal justice system is inadequate to deal with hardened young offenders?

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