Monday, March 15, 2010

Hate Crimes as Cultural Terrorism

Andrew Sullivan gave a great speech recently at Princeton entitled, The Politics of Homosexuality.  In a section on liberalism, he argues against hate crime laws.  He worries that as an extension of identity politics, they contribute to a "balkanization" of  society.  That instead of protecting minority rights, it actually threatens them further by provoking resentment in those who don't seem to enjoy the same protections.

I'm not sure I agree with him on this.  To me, the strongest argument for hate crime laws is the public acknowledgment of a special kind of culturally and institutionally polluting act.  Our species has lived with all manner of xenophobia and ethnic hatred.  In the same way that certain crimes against the state are deemed terrorist, or treasonous, I can see how a special category of crime can be applied to hate-based acts, those targeted toward a group that has historically been the victim of majority group discrimination.  Because what is a hate crime really but a form of cultural terrorism.

To the degree that some people might be provoked to resent discriminated groups even more, why should we make apologies for their bigotry?  In a practical sense, does Sullivan actually think that the existence of hate crime laws has contributed to any greater level of discrimination and violence?  By calling Mathew Shepard's brutal murder a hate crime, it highlighted the narrative of hatred in the crime.  It was a public shaming, a spotlight on a part of our society that we are definitively and forcibly making clear that we shall not tolerate.  If it had been considered nothing more than another random, senseless murder, the narrative lies fallow, hidden away to succor within our dangerously forgetful collective unconscious.

Maybe hate crimes have no real effect on future acts.  That seems an unknowable prognosis.  But they do have symbolic significance.  They mark a clear line in the sand as to what we as a society are trying to be.  And they are acknowledging that we are still not there yet.  Maybe their real achievement will be when we no longer have to employ them at all.

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