Hate crime is just a weapon in our petty culture war
Two recent events have got me thinking again about our latest obsession, hate crimes. The first is the retirement of Pastor James McConnell of Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, who made those absurd and offensive remarks about Islam being "a doctrine spawned in hell". (You've got to hand it to these old-school Pentecostals, they really know how to coin a lurid phrase.)
The elderly pastor was subsequently questioned by the police and, after an impassioned defence of his claims, he thought better of it all and issued a public apology.
First Minister Peter Robinson – who weighed in in support of Mr McConnell, then complicated matters still further by making a seriously weird statement about whether he'd trust a Muslim person to go to the shops for him – was also forced to apologise.
All this happened against the mounting roar of right-thinking people chanting "hate speech, hate speech, hate speech". But was it? Now I'm not so sure.
The second story is the rabble-rousing comments made by lead singer of rebel band The Druids, Mick O'Brien, at the Ardoyne Fleadh.
Video footage of the event showed O'Brien yelling fatuously into the microphone. "In the occupied six counties of Ireland there are still over five thousand British soldiers parading around the streets of Ireland as if they owned it," he shouted, to deafening cheers, and then added that, "It's about time that they all f***** off back to England".
Of course, the DUP and TUV hotfooted it straight away to the police with their juicy nugget of republican misbehaviour. They probably felt they were long overdue for a rattle on this particular issue, after Ruth Patterson's run-in with the cops over nasty Facebook comments, and their Dear Leader's embarrassing public climbdown in the McConnell case.
"Hate speech!" cried DUP councillor Lee Reynolds, with smug and self-righteous inevitability, like the speccy boy who runs eagerly to tell the teacher what the bad boys have been doing.
Meanwhile, Jolene Bunting, of the TUV, claimed that the gig was so loud that pro-IRA songs and chanting could be heard in the Shankill area. "Not only was this provoking, but it was particularly distressing for elderly people and young children," she said.
This, you may recall, is the same Jolene Bunting who had to apologise for previous Facebook musings, in which she expressed the desire that "Catholic b*******" would "just go down to Ireland and then they can fly their flags and change the street signs down there".
Now we learn that no action will be taken against The Druids, or the Fleadh, because the Public Prosecution Service has advised that no criminal offence had been committed.
Was this the right decision? Rotten and repulsive as the sentiments expressed by O'Brien were, I'm inclined to say yes.
We can't just start shrieking "hate crime" every time somebody says something we don't like. And after all, we have no clear idea what hate crimes actually mean.
Sure, certain instances are pretty straightforward. If a racist thug scrawls intimidatory graffiti on an African person's house, demanding local houses for local people, then I think we can all agree that constitutes a hate crime, and the miscreants should be pursued and rigorously held to account.
Such an incident clearly comes into the PSNI's one-size-fits-all definition: "Hate crime is any incident perceived to have been committed against any person or property on the grounds of a particular person's ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, political opinion, or disability."
But even here there's uncertainty. Note that sneaky little phrase "perceived to have been committed." Perceived by whom? Who decides on the nature of the hating and if it's strong enough to be a criminal offence?
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission isn't sure how things stand either. Acknowledging that there is "no universally accepted definition of hate speech", the commission has sought United Nations guidance on when a statement is protected by the right to freedom of expression and when it crosses the line into hate speech.
To my mind, restrictions on speech should be a matter of very last resort, when severe and credible threats have been made against an individual person or organisation. They can't be invoked at the drop of a hat when someone has simply caused others offence.
Neither should they be used as crude weapons in our endlessly petty culture wars, not to protect vulnerable people, but as a way of seeking official support for suppressing political opponents.
As every newspaper columnist knows, there is no right to freedom from being hated.