Are you ‘stirring up hatred’? Am I? Scotland is so easily insulted now

Photo by Adrien Gilbert on Unsplash

Let me tell you a story in the context of the Scottish government’s new hate crime law, which went into effect on Monday, April 1. The new law adds to protections related to stirring up racial hatred that have been in place across the UK since 1986.

A few months ago, I approached a woman behind the reception counter at the doctor’s practice. This was in England, not Scotland.

“I’m here for my scheduled appointment,” I said.

“Not me,” she said rudely, pointing at the other women sitting further along behind the same counter. “I don’t work for the doctor’s practice. You need to ask them”.

Her tone was harsher than merited by my offence, I felt. The office in which she sat was a large space with multiple medics and receptionists affiliated to my doctor’s practice, as well as some other health-related outfits and organisations that weren’t directly connected to the doctor.

So I bristled and responded in a way I normally would not: “Ok thanks. Keep your hair on”.

That last sentence went down like a match to gunpowder.

The woman erupted like an active volcano near the Icelandic town of Grindavík. Raising her voice, she berated me soundly. How dare I speak like that to her, she asked.

Judging it to be question to which she didn’t really want an answer and being of a generally peaceable bent, I apologised quickly, profusely and abjectly.

But she wouldn’t let it go, even as I simply continued to say “sorry, sorry”.

The matter ended when the angry woman found no further charge in that conversation because her opponent was not trading insults.

There’s that word “insult”.

The new Scottish law, which was passed by its devolved parliament in 2021 and only now sets about changing the reality of life in Scotland, has created a sweeping new charge. This is of “stirring up hatred”, which makes it a criminal offence to communicate or behave in a way that “a reasonable person would consider to be threatening, abusive or insulting”. A conviction could lead to a fine and a prison sentence of up to seven years.

Had I been in Scotland might that incident at the doctor’s surgery have become something bigger and darker?

While I, a small brown woman, am considered largely immune from charges of racism and discrimination, the angry woman might have suggest a colour-coded “insult” of some sort? She was Black and had a mass of frizzy hair.

Might she have alleged that I was being discriminatory? Incidentally, I don’t really agree with having a pass on racist and discriminatory behaviour because non-white people can and are all of these things too, but that’s not the point of this story. (Click here to read my Times of India piece on this issue.)

The point is whether the law is right to make the issue of “threatening, abusive or insulting” communications and behaviour a criminal offence. That is a huge and potentially bottomless cauldron. In it would slosh around bile, venom, misjudged comments, irritated remarks, emotionally unintelligent suggestions, sheer stupidity and yes, some words and deeds that might genuinely need to be reported to the police and investigated by them.

As things stand though, Scotland’s police force have been overwhelmed. Several thousands of complaints poured in within the first 48 hours of the Act coming into effect. That’s at least partly because the Scottish government has made it very easy to complain – the process can be started using an online form. There’s also this other reality: It’s always possible for people to think of communications or behaviour from others that they “would consider to be threatening, abusive or insulting”. [There is also the beef that Harry Potter author J.K.Rowling and others have about the transgender issue, but that’s not what I’m looking at here.]

One of the problems is the Scottish government’s evident good intentions. Scotland’s first minister, Humza Yousaf, who was justice secretary when the bill was passed three years ago, supports the legislation on the grounds that he has legal protection from racist behaviour as a man of Pakistani origin and others should have the same on disparate grounds. Mr Yousaf has said: “If I have the protection against somebody stirring up hatred because of my race – and that has been the case since 1986 — why on earth should these protections not exist for someone because of their sexuality, or disability or their religion?”

Yes, but not like this. This is way too broad and presumes too much on people’s good sense.

Instead, just as we’re taught by our parents, it may sometimes be better for the state as well to suggest that we let bygones be bygones.

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