I read with sorrow and disdain a New York Times editorial the other day, “There Ought to Be a Law Against Hate.” I feel compassion for a man who lost a mother to a neo-Nazi, but don’t agree with him about outlawing a human emotion.
The part I object to most is the title, that there should be a law against hate. Hate is an emotion that all humans have. It arises involuntarily. We have it because we inherited it from our ancestors. They have it because it evolved. No emotion is absolutely good, bad, or evil on its own. Even if you believe it is, not everyone agrees with you. You say you’re right and they’re wrong? They say the same in reverse. Why should others listen to you over them?
To act on an emotion is different than feeling the emotion. To say there ought to be a law against hate suggests outlawing the emotion, beyond the behavior.
To suggest criminalizing a naturally occurring human emotion misunderstands emotions. We can choose what emotions we act on but we can’t choose what emotions arise or not. If prohibiting alcohol was a disaster, prohibiting an emotion would dwarf that disaster.
We don’t have access to others’ emotions anyway. Many people do things out of what they feel is love that others call hate. Do you plan on telling people what emotions they are feeling? I hate that I took so long to realize my diet was making me unhealthy. Do you want to make that feeling I have about myself a crime? How do you plan to implement it? If you don’t criminalize that hatred but want to criminalize other hatred, where do you draw the line?
Legislating behavior makes sense. You can observe it. It affects others. A law against hate ignores that without behavior, an emotion doesn’t affect others.
Person A hates group B. Out of A’s hatred, he doesn’t talk to them. None of group B knows or cares. Is that hatred a crime?
Person C still loves a former spouse who left her. Out of love she keeps contacting him. He feels harassed. Is that behavior not a crime because it was motivated by love? If you say it’s not really love, why can’t another say that what you call another’s hatred isn’t really hate? There is no way out of this morass of one person telling another what they feel over their own feelings.
In the op/ed piece writer’s defense, he doesn’t repeat the headline, which an editor may have written. Still, he closes with, “We can’t bring back the loved ones, like my mother, whom we have lost to hate. But we can demand laws to better protect us,” which suggests his goal is to prevent crime. Nothing of what he suggested seems aimed at preventing crime.
Research by the Southern Poverty Law Center has found that South Carolina alone is home to six neo-Confederate groups, four white nationalist organizations, two factions of the Ku Klux Klan and three neo-Nazi groups. It is only a matter of time before a deranged individual or group influenced by their creed of hate strikes again.
His problem is that he expects people in some groups will commit heinous crimes if we don’t stop them but they haven’t committed any crimes yet. So he needs to criminalize something first. He latches onto hatred, probably thinking only of hatred he doesn’t like, not thinking about the problems and unintended consequences of his proposal:
- Emotions arise involuntarily, not out of intent
- No one can observe another person’s emotions, meaning courts will determine what others feel, over their direct knowledge
- People hate lots of things that aren’t problems—taxes, rain on a parade, enemies in war time. If those aren’t problems, than what is?
- People terrorize others out of emotions other than hate. Many terrorize others out of love
- Tracking people someone calls haters opens the door for tracking anyone. Who has never hated in their life? Are you prepared for the consequences of someone saying you hate others and therefore should be tracked?
- How do you explain to children that an emotion they feel naturally is criminal? How are you going to warp their self-awareness and understanding?
Also, consider the perspective of even someone you may dislike and fear as much as a neo-Nazi. Say this person hates people for their races and religions, but nonetheless obeys all laws, never intends to act on their hatred, nor ever does. Now this man suggests tracking this law-abiding person who won’t harm anyone.
Can this person not claim that the person demanding to track their law-abiding activity is hating them? Doesn’t the person pursuing tracking people who haven’t committed crimes because they might sound like they hate another group? The op-ed author may say he is justified because someone killed his mother and he wants to prevent others from suffering similar fates. Well, the neo-Nazis feel justified too.
An alternative solution
His op-ed piece didn’t clarify what a hate crime was or how hate crime laws deterred anything. He seemed to want to promote tracking people who would commit hate crimes but didn’t suggest how to identify them. As best I could tell he thought it was obvious who should be tracked—the people who hated—as if you could just look at them and know their hearts.
I feel his passion but see his vague, self-righteous ideas counterproductive to his goals to the extent I could understand them from his piece.
If outlawing thoughts and feelings would create a disaster beyond Prohibition, what can you do?
You can focus on behavior, which is all you can observe of others, not emotions. If you can show that someone was inciting others to future crime, prosecute that already criminal behavior. If people are planning to commit crimes, prosecute that already criminal behavior. If the laws against such behavior is lax, tighten those laws, but only focusing on behavior.
Clarify the difference between a so-called hate crime and another and see what difference you can observe in behavior, if possible. It seems to me what people mean by hate crime is one intended to create fear in others in the same group, not just the victim. If so, then focus on establishing that intent. That’s terrorism. We have laws about terrorism. Do we care if terrorists’ motivation is hate, love, or any other emotion? No, we care about the innocent people they threaten. Act on the tangible threats. If they aren’t tangible, what are you acting on if not your own self-righteousness, and why is that someone else’s crime?
If you think about making emotions illegal, think of all the consequences, not just the ones you want. If you think you can tell others what emotions they feel, be prepared for others to tell you what you feel, which may put you in jail.