“So what do victim impact statements and the concept of hate crime have in common? They both point to an evaluation of the moral significance of criminal acts, and of victimhood, that prioritizes the psychological and the subjective.”
One of the great problems in today’s world is that hate is rather limited in scope. For society to flourish, we really need more hate—or at least a broader understanding of what hate is. Confused? Well, bear with me a moment while I explain.
Last week The Spectator published two articles, one by Brendan O’Neill and one by Kevin O’Sullivan, on the rising prevalence—or, perhaps better, the broadening legal definition and cultural significance—of hate crimes in the United Kingdom. O’Neill outlined the way in which traditional evidence (of the old-fashioned kind that can be assessed using public criteria) is now of little consequence in the pursuit and prosecution of “hate,” and O’Sullivan described his own personal nightmare of being accused of such and fighting desperately—and at great financial cost—to clear his name.
Even allowing for some journalistic hyperbole, the articles are very worrying. In the prosecution of these “crimes,” evidence and even the alleged perpetrator’s intent are now discounted, while the victim’s perception takes center stage and is privileged over any other consideration. Of course, O’Neill and O’Sullivan are speaking of events in the United Kingdom, but the underlying political culture they describe is ubiquitous.
Conservatives and old-style (i.e. true) liberals will no doubt see this development as yet more left-wing lunacy. But before we start decrying it as one more triumph for the lobby groups, we should reflect on the affinities between this development and the less politically contentious phenomenon of victim impact statements—something many conservatives welcomed as giving victims a voice. Here, the victims of crime, or (in the case of murder) close relatives or friends of the victim, are allowed to speak to the court during the penalty phase of a trial about how the actions of the defendant have adversely affected them.
But what if someone with no friends or relatives is murdered, a person whose death impacts no one else—say, a homeless man or an elderly single woman with no relatives? Is that crime somehow less evil than the murder of a man with a wife and children? Is that life worth less in the eyes of the law? So it would appear, for otherwise these impact statements would be of no significance at all.
So what do victim impact statements and the concept of hate crime have in common? They both point to an evaluation of the moral significance of criminal acts, and of victimhood, that prioritizes the psychological and the subjective. Those on the Right who welcome victim impact statements as enhancing victims’ rights might want to pause before excoriating those on the Left who favor the rise and expansion of hate crime legislation. These are two aspects of the same tendency to psychologize and subjectivize crime and the law. As such, they are the legal manifestation of our culture’s broader redefinition of identity and personhood in psychological terms.