Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Against Hate-Crimes Laws
Andrew Sullivan Edition

1. I've oscillated back and forth on this issue at times, but usually I am opposed to hate-crimes legislation. Which doesn't mean that I take a soft line on "hate crimes." Rather, I'm with those who are inclined to think that most violent crimes of the vaguely relevant type are hate crimes in the most important sense.

I tend to be rather puzzled by lefty liberals who seem inclined to think both that:

(a) Criminals--including violent criminals--ought to receive relatively light sentences


(b) "Hate criminals" ought to receive relatively harsher sentences

I agree that lots of non-violent offenders ought to receive lighter sentences. But not violent criminals. In fact, my position is roughly: take whatever harsher sentences you think "hate criminals" ought to get; those are the sentences I think all such violent criminals should get. I've always thought that the inclination to be soft on violent crime was one of the most irrational, inexplicable, and politically damaging positions characteristic of contemporary liberals. It seems to betray both a hyperbolic sympathy for vicious criminals and a dearth of sympathy for innocent victims that convinces many people that liberalism is deranged.

2. But to focus on a slightly different point in the vicinity, I think Sullivan is right on the money here:
The real reason for hate crime laws is not the defense of human beings from crime. There are already laws against that - and Matthew Shepard's murderers were successfully prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law in a state with no hate crimes law at the time. The real reason for the invention of hate crimes was a hard-left critique of conventional liberal justice and the emergence of special interest groups which need boutique legislation to raise funds for their large staffs and luxurious buildings.
I'm less interested in the latter (possibly sound) psychological ad hominem, and more interested in the former point--that "the real reason for the invention of hate crimes was a hard-left critique of conventional liberal [theories of] justice." I suspect he's right on that point. The more traditional liberal type of view has it that we're all primarily individuals and all of equal value, and that (other things being equal) crimes against us are all equally heinous. The more lefty type of views move in the direction of seeing us as something more like members or representatives (or even representations) of the various groups we belong to, and seeing crimes against (members of?) "disempowered" groups as being more serious than crimes against other folks.

Now, if we really were punishing crimes for the degree of hatred in their motives, I'd be more sympathetic. But we aren't. If we were, we'd have to take a harder look at bullying and, perhaps, rape.

So, currently, I'm inclined to be against these laws, and not on any conservative grounds, but, rather, on what I take to be traditional liberal grounds.


Blogger Myca said...

It's interesting. On this issue I'm located fairly close to you, but I sort of tentatively support hate crimes legislation.

My reasoning goes something like: We see nothing wrong with punishing greater 'harm' more harshly. Hate Crimes are crimes specifically that promote/create conflict between different demographic segments. This is a greater 'harm,' because it's a harm to society's cohesion. Free speech issues are important, though, and the first amendment applies even to opinions that destroy societal cohesion.

Therefore it's okay to punish this greater harm with a harsher sentence, in a situation where the harm comes as part of something that's already a crime.Anyway, that's kind of how my brain works on this issue.


11:40 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yeah, that's roughly the argument that temporarily swayed me to the other side, and which may very well do so again. I haven't thought hard enough about this, so my conclusion here is particularly tentative.

11:52 AM  
Blogger matthew christman said...

What liberals, exactly, are calling for light punishment for violent criminals? And being against the death penalty doesn't count.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Seriously? That doesn't seem right to you? I thought this was roughly one of the major background planks in the liberal platform--lighter prison sentences and more emphasis on rehabilitation rather than retribution all around.

Opposition to the death penalty is one obvious expression of the I'm wondering why you think pointing to that would be out of bounds? I mean, some opposition to the death penalty--my own attenuated, not-in-principle opposition, for example--is based on worries about how bad we are at identifying people who genuinely deserve death.

But you must admit that much of the opposition on the left is *not* actually driven by those epistemic worries--even though it focuses on those worries to make its case. Much of the non-epistemic opposition to the death penalty *is*, I'd say, an expression of the attitude I'm pointing to.

Does that sound wrong?

As for being able to point to some particular liberal who favors lighter sentences for violent criminals...but not in the form of opposing the death penalty... Well...I can't...though I'm not sure how much that tells us.

But: are you saying that you deny the following proposition?:

Conservatives tend (note: ignoring the death penalty) to favor stiffer penalties for violent criminals than do liberals?

Now, you might say: they favor stiffer penalties for basically everything (except, e.g., torture and lying to the SEC...)...then I'm not sure where things go...

2:38 PM  
Blogger Myca said...

Opposition to the death penalty is one obvious expression of the I'm wondering why you think pointing to that would be out of bounds?I think because the opposition to it might be one of category rather than degree. That is, I don't think it's inconsistent to say, We should lock people up for twice as long as we normally do, or even life, but killing them is right out, because that's murder.

Think of it, roughly, as the Catholic position.


2:56 PM  
Blogger matthew christman said...

I've never encountered a liberal calling for lighter sentences for violent offenders. When liberals talk about an increased emphasis on rehabiliation and/or treatment, it's almost ALWAYS in the context of non-violent offenders, namely prisoners of the asinine drug war. In fact, a big rhetorical club for anti-drug warriors is pointing out that drug dealers and/or buyers risk stiffer prison sentences than rapists, with the implicit assumption that the rapists DESERVE stiff sentences, unlike drug offenders. If you've been hanging out with anarchists, who oppose the very notion of incarceration, then you'd have a point, except that anarchists aren't liberals in any recognizable sense.

8:48 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

So lemme get this straight: you don't think that liberals (real liberals--not anarchists, of course) tend to favor lighter sentences for violent crimes than conservatives do?

(I mean, I'd be way, WAY happy if you were right. It's always seemed like one of the loonier of the liberal inclinations to me, and I'd be much happier about liberalism if I were wrong about it. But I don't think I am.

Again: realize that the death penalty actually may very well be a good indicator here.)

9:10 PM  
Blogger matthew christman said...

No, the death penalty is not an inidcator here. You can believe that the state does not that the right to take human life and also believe that violent offenders deserve to spend significant time in prison, especially since most violent offenders wouldn't be eligible for the death penalty in all but the most draconian penal systems. You're asserting w/o evidence, here, and since you're the one making the positive claim, it is incumbent on you to produce some sort of evidence for your assertion, rather than simply ask me, incredulously, if I REALLY deny your unsupported claim.

10:09 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Ah, so it's the burden of proof card, is it?

Well, first: yes, the death penalty IS an indicator--or, rather, despite you asserting that it isn't, you haven't established that. And you have THAT burden of proof, if we want to play that game.

Furthermore, I didn't realize you took this to be an adversarial discussion. I was merely honestly asking you if you really believed what you were saying upon reflection. There's nothing illegitimate about that, despite your unfriendly suggestion that there is.

I still find it hard to believe it, but I gather from your response that you do honestly believe that conservatives do not in general advocate stiffer penalties for violent crimes than do liberals. I guess you and I know very different conservatives and very different liberals...

Now, I'm not particularly interested in proving my claim. If you want to try to disprove it, then be my guest. Of course I could be wrong, but the only real evidence we have on the table thus far is that concerning the DP--evidence which you assert without proof to be illegitimate.

I'd say: let's stop playing burden tennis and try to figure out what kind of survey data we should look for to settle the question...

10:39 PM  
Blogger Jim Bales said...

Let us turn to an unabashed liberal and hear what he has to say about pending hate crime legislation.

Rep. Barney Frank said in Congress, on April 29:
I do think that there ought to be hate crimes protection against gay, lesbian and transgender people. By that I mean that if there is a physical crime, actions that are otherwise criminal, the fact that it [the crime] is based on that prejudice should count.
Why a hate crime? Because when someone is assaulted as an individual, that individual is put in fear. But when a group is assaulted because of race or religion or sexual orientation, members who aren't assaulted, if there's a pattern to this, are also put in fear. That's the rationale, and it applies here as well as elsewhere.
It is a fact that a pattern of violence commited out hatred to a minority group can terrorize that group.

For most of a century (between the end of the Civil War and the successes of the Civil Rights movement) hate crimes were used to keep many (if not most) of America's blacks living in fear and accepting of a grossly unjust legal and social system.

Such hate crimes were accepted by the majority, and it was essentially impossible for a local or state court to obtain a conviction of a white for lynching a black in much of the nation during this period.

Federal hate crimes made it possible for the murderers to be tried in Federal courts, where convictions of the guilt could happen.

There is no need for legislating hate crimes unless there is a pre-existing pattern of such crimes. If such a pattern of systemic violence against a minority group exists, then hate crimes are (IMHO) a measured and reasonable response to breaking the cycle of violence and terror.


12:09 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

The proprietor of this fine BS establishment regrets the crankiness of the above response to Matthew C...but stands by its substance.

Sorry man.

(Don't blog tired...don't blog tired...)

7:53 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home