Thursday, November 19, 2009

On hate crimes, comic strips, and offending the reader

For most of my life, I probably was a reflexive supporter of the notion of prosecuting certain acts as "hate crimes" and of extending the umbrella of hate crime legislation to protect more and more marginalized groups.

Over the years, I've come to conclude that the attempt to define and prosecute hate crimes is misguided. I says this somewhat reluctantly, because I do believe the desire to recognize and prosecute hate crimes comes from a basically honorable motivation.

The blogger Andrew Sullivan first got me thinking about this differently (the link is to a representative comment by him on the subject), and just recently Paul Oakley's take on the issue was for me compelling enough to clarify my own thinking once and for all.

Now comes word that, in response to pickets, the paper Newsday is apologizing for, and wishing it hadn't published, a cartoon mocking the notion of hate crimes.

The timing, I'll admit, was unfortunate. Just a week before the cartoon ran was the one-year anniversary of the death of an Ecuadorean immigrant at the hands of teenagers who stabbed him to death. And the paper's coverage of immigration issues became a lightning rod for protesters. I'm unable to judge the paper on that specific subject, but I do know that Newsday has a long and basically good reputation for serious community and investigative journalism, although its ownership has changed recently.

But the fact is, the cartoon in question (an episode of Mallard Fillmore) makes a point, although perhaps not as deftly as one would want. And I say this as a non-fan of Mallard Fillmore who was quite happy when one of our local papers dropped the strip a few years ago.

The strip (description courtesy of Richard Prince, quoting a Newsday report on the controversy)
depicted a larger dinosaur chasing a small one. The bigger one says, 'I'm not chasing you because you're a pachycephalosaurus. . . . I'm chasing you because you're delicious.' The smaller dinosaur responds, 'Oh, thank goodness. I was worried that this might be a hate crime.'

Dead is dead. Beaten is beaten. Maimed is maimed. Raped is raped. Doesn't it make sense to punish people based on the consequences of their actions, rather than the thoughts in their heads? If a mugger kills me for my wallet, or kills my friend because he's gay, does the reason for the killing really warrant a different kind of sentence?

Now I'm not against labeling an act, where appropriate, as a hate crime--but I see that basically as a sociological exercise. I just have trouble seeing how that's relevant from the strict standpoint of criminal justice.

One other thing disturbs me about the Newsday episode.

"We expect the cartoons we publish, many of which are nationally syndicated, to amuse, stir and entertain, but never to offend," a spokewoman for the newspaper said in a statement.

Hmmm... Regardless of my own opinion on hate crimes -- is never to offend really the standard that the paper expects to reach? That seems to set the bar so high that all that would pass is pablum.


  1. I've asked supporters of hate crime laws if there's any evidence that they deter crimes against the people they're supposed to protect. No one has pointed me to any.

  2. First, I agree completely with DSD on hate crime laws.

    Second, what say DSD and the rest of his commenters about the notion that we're way too easily offended, generally, these days? Books get challenged because someone might find a passage (or a word, or a term) OFFENSIVE. (Ask the ALA. "Huckleberry Finn" is the cheap example, for liberal use of That Word That Starts With "N" That I'm Absolutely Not Allowed to Use, Even Though Mr. Twain Lived In a Time When It Was Used Every Day, By Nice People, No Less.)

    And yet... there's so much hatred and meanness and really scary invective being peddled under the guise of political discourse. How do we sort that out?

  3. "And yet... there's so much hatred and meanness and really scary invective being peddled under the guise of political discourse. How do we sort that out?"

    Not, as I'm sure DSM would agree, by using force of law to shut them up. That's a complete non-starter, troubling as the resulting anarchy into which political discourse has descended may be.

    If we're going to shut people up because they offend us, that's a non-starter.

    And on the subject of comic strips... I'm sure there were readers who were offended a few weeks ago when, in Luann, it became clear that the title character's big brother Brad had just had an (offstage) erotic interlude with his new girlfriend. Or some weeks before that when Luann's mom told the same young man, "Use protection." I, for one, am glad that neither of the two papers we read that carry the strip decided that was too offensive for their readers. (Of course, no one picketed them for it, either.)

  4. I have yet to have the case made to me in a persuasive way.

    The point isn't that the hate crime further injures the individual who is murdered (though it may be that the victim was traumatized by expressions of hate in the process... but that's not the point, at all).

    I support hate crime legislation because it's not *just* a crime against the victim.

    If I kill you because we have an argument, I get angry, and lash out... you're dead. Your family and friends are outraged, shocked, angry and traumatized--injured. If I spot you on the street, decide you're gay (or observe that you have dark skin, or dress in a manner that makes me think you're part of some religious/ethnic community...), and attack you and kill you because of it... you're dead. Your family and friends are outraged, shocked, angry and traumatized--injured. AND there's a whole class of people who may well not know you who are also traumatized.

    Intimidated. Afraid.

    Hate crimes legislation is anti-terror legislation. It acknowledges that society is injured differently in the two cases. Having a segment of the society afraid to be, and to be able to go about, is extremely harmful to those individuals, and to the society.

    Lynching isn't just murder, it's a hate crime. It's terrorism.

    And to my eye, that justifies the laws. It doesn't criminalize hate--thought, or speech--it criminalized hate which is acted on. You're free to hate. You're not free to act on it.

    From ancient Germanic tribal law onward, there's been a recognition that justice requires that the social peace be reinforced, and when violated, restored. It's why they had a system of fines and restitution. Not just for the victim and/or survivors, but for the society. If people are left in fear, with the sense that they are unprotected victims, that's not been achieved.

    As for not being a deterrent... that's true. But the law doesn't serve as a deterrent--that's a myth, usually. Very,very few people think about an act being criminal, consider the punishment, and then decide not to commit the act (or to commit it).

  5. As a sociologist, a UU, a woman and a non-heterosexual person, I strongly support hate crimes laws because they acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that a "neutral" law is not neutral at all in a society with structural inequality. (Aren't the poor and rich both forbidden to beg? Doesn't that mean the law is equal? I say this facetiously, of course.) Laws that do not include hate crimes give permission for communities to be terrorized based on their religion, racial background, sexuality, gender, etc. Laws that do include hate crimes at least intend to send a message to society as a whole that people who are devalued by dint of the groups they belong to are going to be "re-valued" by the legal system. It's a kind of affirmative action, and most kinds of affirmative action are strongly disliked by people with individualistic outlooks on life who don't grasp how our social group memberships impact our life opportunities, experiences, privileges and penalties. I know that sounds academic, and I'm sorry - I'm used to discussing this stuff in academic settings. But I hope it at least makes sense.


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