The concept of “hate crime” in English law is currently (2021) defined as:
“Any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s race or perceived race; religion or perceived religion; sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation; disability or perceived disability and any crime motivated by hostility or prejudice against a person who is transgender or perceived to be transgender”.
It’s a definition that has developed in a somewhat piecemeal fashion, particularly over the past 50 or so years, that has some notable features:
Firstly, it’s wide-ranging in terms of what constitutes “an offence” in law. In basic terms it can be any behaviour as long as it is “motivated by hostility or prejudice”. In reality, this crystalises into three main types: “physical assault, verbal abuse and incitement to hatred”.
Secondly, it is restricted to a narrow range of protected categories. While “hostility or prejudice” towards someone who identifies as transgender is an offence, gender hatred is not currently included in these categories: in England and Wales, for example, neither misogyny (a hatred or contempt for women) nor misandry (a hatred or concept for men) is a criminal offence.
Thirdly, it somewhat unusually defines criminal behaviour in terms of the “perception of the victim or any other person”. It is, in other words, up to the victim to decide whether or not an offence has taken place.
History of Hate
While the above, for what should be fairly obvious reasons, makes it difficult to precisely identify and explain how and why hate crime offences come about or to track demographic changes over time, there is one particular area of “hate crime” that has been on the statute books for over a century (“Threat or conspiracy to murder”) that is relatively easy to track and, in some respects, explain. The Home Office publishes a useful summary of recorded crime data from 1898 – 2002 that shows an interesting trend over a 100 year period:
In 1900, for example, there were 8 recorded crimes for this offence.
In 2000 the recorded number was 14,000.
If we look at the past 100 years, the changes are even more remarkable:
In 1921 there were 16 recorded offences.
In 2021 this figure was around 40,000…
Even if we allow for things like population changes (around 25 million more people in England in 2000 compared to 1900) and differences in the way crimes may presently be recorded compared to the past, it’s evident that we need to explain these changes sociologically if we are to make sense of them.
As luck or good timing would have it, Neil Chakraborti (2021) has offered four explanations of this upward trend in hate crime that we can paraphrase in the following terms:
1. Ease of Access: the relatively recent development of social media (Twitter and Facebook in particular) and email has made it much easier and simpler for an offender to send something like a death threat:
This may also account for part of the increase in “murder threats” in that ease of access coupled with lack of effort means there is little or no time for the potential offender to reflect on their behaviour: unlike in the past, for example, there is little or no time to think about whether “threatening to kill someone” over some real or perceived wrong is an appropriate way to (instantly) behave…
2. Anonymity: Although people generally overestimate the level of anonymity they enjoy online – anyone can be traced if you throw enough time and resources at finding them – there is undoubtedly a sense that individuals who feel or believe themselves to be “acting anonymously” give greater reign to abusive behaviour. Chakraborti also suggests that perceptions of anonymity provide offenders with a greater sense of “personal invincibility” – the idea that the threats they make will come at no personal cost because victims will never be able to find them.
3. Cultural changes: A third element involves cultural changes in both communication (the aforementioned ease with which messages can be targeted) and consciousness: that is, the idea that for a significant number of people their particular world view is both easily offended and requires a strong defence from these perceived attacks. This seems particularly the case for those who perceive themselves as being involved in some sort of culture war, whether this be “the war on woke”, attacking “cancel culture” or whatever their current perceived sense of threat might be.
This elevated sense of cultural threat combined with ease of communication serves to create responses, such as death threats, that those not invested in cultural battles and exchanges would consider over-exaggerated. To the perpetrators, however, these may represent entirely appropriate responses to heightened levels of what they may perceive as a personal, existential, threat. This is not, of course, to excuse such behaviour, but it might go some way towards explaining why it occurs at the levels it currently does.
4. The normalisation of hate: Where various forms of hateful language have become part of both the social and physical media discourse, their effect is underestimated. Hateful language in the form of death threats, for example, becomes seen as just another part of normal cultural / political discourse to the extent that perpetrators fail to see the seriousness of the threats they make.