What is wrong with Hate Crimes? Four contrast cases

24 maj 2011 | In Crime Ethics Hate Crime Moral philosophy politics | Comments?


Killing Seneca – not a hate crime?

What is wrong with hate crime? Are they worse than parallel crimes? If so, why? This is the central question, and it carries into all areas of hate crime scholarship. If we can answer this question, we would have the means to determine which crimes to include under the term, and what groups of victims and groups of perpetrators are relevant.

The distinguishing mark of hate crimes is in the motivation – hate crimes are motivated by bias, hostility, animus, prejudice, hate of group. This has impact on victim selection – usually, but not always, a member of the hated group. A hate crime may also hit someone only perceived to be a member of the hated group or – and this has often been neglected – someone important to that group. Hatred against homosexuals, for instance, may target some heterosexual gay-icon. It also has important for the type of crime and the intention behind the crime – usually the intention is to hurt the community, and thus selecting means that express this hatred as loudly as possible. Again, there might be cases where the hater only need to ”blow off steam” and thus may select a victim but make it look like an accident, or a normal robbery. In such a case, the motive would influence victim selection, but the intention is not to cause greater harm to the group. It is debatable whether such a crime should be treated as worse than the crime it is made to look like.

The main two theories about the wrongness of hate crime is

1) Hate/prejudice is wrong. The motive makes the perpetrator more blameworthy

2) Hate Crimes hurt more

Both allow for qualifications – is hate/prejudice always wrong? There is debate over whether ”hate” is the right word (it probably isn’t) since it doesn’t actually imply a fault. It might be an attitude that it is always wrong to have, but it may occasionally have the right fit – hating something that is bad/evil for instance. Do crimes motivated by hate always hurt more? Why do they hurt more? Is it because the group to which the victim belong are more vulnerable when targeted because of membership of that group?

Four contrast cases

To coax out some of our intuitions about hate crime, I present four cases of crimes directed at someone because of some characteristic that distinguish them as members of a certain group. The questions we need to ask is: 1) Are all of them hate crimes? and 2) Do all of them have the property that make certain crimes worse than others?

Case 1: The standard

A member of the majority (white, say)  assaults a member of a historically disadvantaged minority (black, say), for racist reasons while making this motivation known to the victim and onlookers. This is a clear cut case of a hate crime if anything is.

Case 2: The ”deserving” victim

A non-descript person attacks a sadist torturer (Because it complicates matters already complicated, I’ve avoided to use the standard example of pedophiles here) because of hatred for sadist torturers. Sadist torturers are, let’s agree, bad people and it is apt to have some sort of negative emotion towards them. Causing fear and withdrawal among other sadist torturers is not obviously a bad thing. Yet – the motivation is hate against someone because of a certain characteristic and, presumably, the sort of harm to the victimized group associated with hate crime occur. Should this qualify? If not, it might be that what’s wrong with ”real” hate crimes is not the ”hate”, but that the hate is, somehow, at fault

Case 3: The New Categories

Moral development often proceeds by inclusion – groups earlier held to be outside the scope of some moral category is recognized as important. Hate Crime legislation arguably begun with a focus on crimes motivated by race, and then included sexuality, religion, beliefs, disability, gender, identity etc. The list seems open-ended and rightly so – it is not a list that is needed, but a criterion. One group of victims that might be included and ”protected” by hate crime legislation is ”Goths”. As an example of an ”alternative” lifestyle. Goths have been victimized because of their group membership, by people motivated by hatred, and their community has felt the impact. (Although, arguably, reactions to crimes may make them stronger by getting support from the rest of society, and by making the group more close knit. Also: Some groups thrive under adversity) What is lacking is the historical disadvantage (they are not ”Goths” in the historical sense), which might make the trauma of victimization less ”deep”, but that is a difficult question to answer. One may argue that the historical disadvantage should not be pinned down to membership of this or that group, but to groups viewed as ”other” in general. In that case, the trauma may carry over. (Note however, that groups are usually quite protective of their distinctive pasts. If targeted because of your affiliation to a soccer team, don’t claim ownership to the holocaust).

Case 4: The Resilient Group

Let’s say I’m targeted because I’m a Stoic. As a Stoic, I don’t mind, and my fellow Stoics don’t mind either. In fact, we mind less than would other victims assaulted for whatever reason. If what makes hate crimes worse is that they hurt more, this is not a hate crime that hurt more, and presumably should be punished less. If what makes them worse is that they are motivated by hate (apt or not), then this is a hate crime in the proper sense and should be punished as much.

Conclusion and further questions

The two rationales for hate crime legislation are both important: hate and prejudice should diminish, especially the ones that tend to be expressed in hurtful acts. And the additional harm caused be targeting someone because of a characteristic that matters to him/her means that it is even more important that these crimes diminish, than that parallel crimes does. It’s bad for the victim, for his/her group and for society in general. But having, and expressing, prejudices against someone who can take it is not as bad as having, and expressing, them against someone that is vulnerable. The predictable harm is not as great, and this should have some impact on how serious we think the crime is. The resilience of the group matters when it comes to what crimes should be prioritized in order to diminish harm. Prioritizing hate crime is even more important than enhancing punishment (and might be a more apt response to what’s worrying about it, while simultaneously expressing society’s rejection of intolerance as much as punishment enhancement does).

One last consideration though: We punish hate crimes against vulnerable groups, say, because of the greater harm these crimes normally tend to have – even if this particular crime did not cause more harm (say the victim died, was viewed as a liability in the community, etc). Some, perhaps most, laws are like that – judging the act by the harm caused by that type of act, not the token. But if we are allowed to make that sort of generalization to disregard the lesser harm caused by this particular act, why not disregard it when the act is of a type that targets a resilient group? Why not say that crimes motived by hate in general tend to cause greater harm, and thus should be judged as worse, even if targeting this particular group (Stoics) does not cause greater harm?

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