On Telegraph Blogs this week, Dan Hannan mounts up one of his favourite hobby horses – his contention that while “man is fallen and we find it everywhere”, people with leftwing sympathies tend to be far more hate-filled and abusive than those at the bluer end of the political spectrum. He and most others on the right, he claims, try not to hate anyone, while all of us angry lefties only think that certain hatreds – racism and misogyny, for example – are unacceptable, but see no problem with hating toffs, Conservatives or the public school-educated. “[L]et’s not proclaim a hierarchy of hatreds”, he concludes. “Abuse is abuse, whatever its target.”
Superficially speaking, this is true. I’m not – ahem – claiming to be entirely blameless in this regard, but if you object to what Conservatives believe in, or what public schools and those who attend them represent, it’s perfectly possible – and virtually always preferable – to express such objections without resorting to insults. A personal attack on someone is generally something to be discouraged, regardless of the motivation for the attack.
But there is a difference. When someone tweets “Sad to learn that c*** [sic] @jamesdelingpole has children. That’s two more c***s in the world”, James Delingpole can laugh it off because, unpleasant though it is, there’s no reason for him to feel threatened by it. Here Hannan might well argue that since many of the sexist, racist and Islamophobic comments which are commonly assumed to be deeply worrying are also not explicitly threatening, it follows that the same applies to them, but this is mistaken. It’s certainly true that there’s a difference between sending an explicitly threatening tweet and sending one that’s merely insulting, in that the former is a crime and (generally speaking) the latter isn’t. But to take this to be the only relevant factor is to wilfully ignore the realities of the world in which we live. In 2010 (pdf) there were over 48,000 hate crimes in the UK, including 39,000 motivated by race, nearly 5,000 by sexual orientation, and around 2,000 by religious faith (not including anti-semitic crimes, which are counted separately). It has to be conceded that the police don’t collect figures on the numbers of crimes which were motivated by the victim’s euroscepticism or their denial of climate change, but somehow it seems unlikely that the numbers would be comparable.
This, rather than hypocrisy, is the reason that we on the left consider misogyny, racism and homophobia on the internet to be more egregious than online abuse of Daily Telegraph writers. There isn’t a simple causal relationship between bigoted comments and hate crimes, but the fact is the islamophobic abuse received by the likes of Mehdi Hasan (plus of course the odd newspaper headline) helps create the context where stuff like this happens. The same just isn’t true of anti-Tory comments of the kind which Hannan discusses. This is not to claim that all hate speech against marginalised or oppressed groups should be criminalised – Reuben rightly argues that this is also deeply problematic – but it is to recognise that when someone has good reason to fear an attack because of their racial or religious background, they have far more reason to fear the consequences of abusive comments about that background than do the Dan Hannans and James Delingpoles of this world about the vitriol they receive. There may not be a hierarchy of hatred, but there is a hierarchy of privilege and marginalisation, much as we might wish that there weren’t.