Saturday, 17 September 2011

Approaches to Preventing Hate Crime

This piece connects to two former posts (here and here), actualised by my participation in the project When Law and Hate Collide: Perspectives on Hate Crime, meant to produce a basic ethical, theoretical and factual framework for harmonising various aspects of European hate crime policy. My Swedish colleague in the project, David Brax, also has a series of posts linking to this project at his blog, Brax on Philosophy.

My former post was about the concept of hate crime – or, since the term "hate" is not really a good one: bias crime as many are starting to call it – and how it connects to the concept of human rights. That post, like so many opinion pieces connecting to hate crime, suffers (at least a bit) from a tendency to be seduced by the word "crime". This word makes us immediately think about criminal law-making, court proceedings, police-work, punishment, and so on. And those aspects of a policy addressing the phenomenon of hate crime are, of course, important. However, if you think that hate crime is a serious matter – serious enough to motivate special legal provisions, at that – you should in fact be more interested in another aspect, namely, what a good preventive policy related to hate crime should look like.

Now, since I am a philosopher and ethics researcher, what I have to say about this will not be very hands on or immediately practical. It will, however, be of interest for those pondering more concrete preventive issues connecting to hate crime and possessing the qualification for doing that in a good way. What I will do, is to set out four different approaches to how one may go about pondering such issues – within what theoretical frames and assumptions the development of preventive hate crime policy strategies may proceed. I will present four such frameworks for preventive thinking in this area, and then conclude by pointing to some important ways in which these frameworks connect and may promote each other.

1. Effective General Crime Prevention
As explained in my former post, hate crimes are not a special type of crime. Hate crimes are ordinary crimes with an additional element: the occurrence of the crime is connected to some sort of factor signalling that the perpetrator commits the crime in conjunction with holding or expressing a particularly biased or disparaging attitude or view towards the victim in virtue of a perceived membership of this victim in some particular social group. This immediately implies that an obvious strategy of prevention as regards hate crime is to effectively prevent crime in general.

Now, many people believe that there is a connection between retributive responses to crime and the occurrence of further crime, and that may very well be so. At least in the individual case, if a perpetrator of a crime is sentenced to imprisonment for some time, this person will not have much opportunity to commit further crime while locked up (at least not outside of prison). However, it is also well known that such retroactive individual prevention strategies are a rather minor part of the tools available to a society that wants to reduce crime rates. Philosophers of law and punishment have often pointed out that, as a matter of fact, such reduction is probably most effectively reached by simply de-criminalising some of the most common crimes. While this is a logically valid point, I will, however, not consider it further here, since it so obviously misses the point about crimes that they are considered crimes due to some reason; for instance, that they tend to seriously harm people. Still, the philosophical point helps us to see that there are other ways of thinking about crime prevention than merely reflecting on fitting responses to people who commit crimes. Instead of becoming caught up by the individual case, where the idea of prevention is practically applicable only once we know that we are dealing with a person to some extent likely to perform a criminal act, we can think about prevention on a more overarching scale, in terms of general factors that appear to be linked to the general frequency of crime in a society.

There are several factors of this type that are well-known. One, of course, is the level of poverty, destitution, and similar conditions. Another factor that has been highlighted more recently through the book The Spirit Level, is social inequality. A further, very important factor, is the level of legal security and quality of government – the latter presently a major research theme at my university – factors which involve not only that societal systems of regulation are marked by formal efficiency, transparency, clarity and so on, but also by them being trusted to a high degree by the general population. All of these factors, in turn, point to a further one: the inclusiveness, recognition and equal treatment of a society as regards the various social groups found in it, at the same time as individuals are not as a rule treated primarily as representatives of such groups. The latter is added in order to make clear that I am not here alluding to some sort of mindless "anything-goes-as-long-as-it's-part-of-your-culture" relativism.

General prevention strategies to reduce crime that work with factors such as these become more important to consider the more a society contains people who live their lives in severe circumstances, the wider the inequality of a society is, the more of corruption and legal insecurity is pestering the lives of citizens, and the more culturally pluralistic a society is. On a European level, where wide variation in all these respects is to be found, it would thus seem that general crime prevention is, in fact, an important – if not central –part of a sound hate crime prevention policy.

2. Prevention of "Hate" or Bias Against Social Groups
The other rather obvious approach to shape a prevention strategy with respect to hate crime connects to the other defining component besides crime, the "hate" or "bias" component. If hate crimes are crimes linked to the perpetrator entertaining a biased or disparaging view against the victim in virtue of perceiving the latter as member of some social group, preventing such attitudes in the first place seems the thing to do, doesn't it? In order to become clear about what that may involve, and to what extent it should be seen as a desirable or important part of a hate crime prevention policy, we need to make some qualifications.

First, trying to prevent the appearance and occurrence of these sort of attitudes is not necessarily only about fighting antagonism or prejudice between different social groups. Attitudes of the sort in focus may very well occur within such groups – and may thus be expressed between individuals who are members of the same group. A simple example would be person A saying to person B: "you are not behaving as a member of group X should", when both are members of group X. There are a lot of examples of crimes seemingly being committed on grounds such as these, such as harassment of people who do not conform to some religious or moral rule of their culture, assaults or infringements to discourage or impede socialising or forming relationships with members of other social groups, and so on. Some of these instances may, of course, belong to the cluster of problems which hate crime policies are aimed to target, but it is not obvious that all of them do. When it comes to the attitudinal component, hate crime as a societal problem foremost connects to inter-group antagonism.

Second, we have to distinguish between two conceptually separate pieces of the attitude. One of the pieces is the attitude towards the group. The other piece is the tendency to judge individual people on the basis of that attitude due to their (perceived) group-membership. Both of these seem to be necessary in order for a hate crime to ensue. However, it would seem that a preventive strategy targeting one of these pieces of the attitude would have to be rather different than a strategy targeting the other piece. Moreover, it is far from obvious that it should be the business of society to try to influence the first piece of the attitude. Suppose for instance, that the disparaging attitude towards the group is based on certified presence within that group of some phenomenon towards which it is perfectly legitimate to hold a disparaging attitude. This could be a custom harming members of the group, a traditionally held worldview containing obvious falsehoods, or something else in that vein. While society may have good reasons to fight and prevent prejudice, this would not apply in such cases. The second piece of the attitude, seems much more apt as a target of societal action. For even if the attitude towards the group would be well-founded and legitimate, it is still a fundamental flaw to judge individuals, who may very well themselves be victims of the feature of the group that explains the dislike. Simply put, preventive policy as regards hate crime targeting the attitudinal component should focus primarily on the phenomenon of overgeneralisation occurring when people project collective patterns of behaviour on single individuals.

This line of reasoning may not look immediately acceptable to everyone. Why? it may be asked, shouldn't society care about antagonistic attitudes between groups as such? Didn't you just say above that this is what is problematic about the attitudinal aspect of hate crime from a societal point of view? Indeed I did, but what has now been added is the observation that this component is complex, and that not all parts of this complex appear to be equally important. For sure, if strongly antagonistic attitudes between different groups in society develop, this is something for society to care about. But the reason for why that is so mainly seems to connect to what may follow such a development. It is not a societal problem as such that people hold prejudiced or biased views about each other. In fact, in a liberal democracy, it would seem that one of the core values that we cherish is that we are allowed to hold whatever views about anything we want. Society has some interest, of course, to try to promote an educated and rational approach to the formation of such views (which is, partly, where action to prevent overgeneralisation and projection comes in). But we cannot escape that in the end, people will form their own opinions about each other, factually as well as morally. Society is also, of course, entitled to push this basic moral message – forming as it is the basic motivation for this society in the first place. However, as just observed, that would seem to entail primarily fighting the overgeneralisation and projection tendency, since that phenomenon runs directly contrary to basic ideas about the equal value and respect owed to each individual person. We all owe each other the courtesy of judging and assessing each other on the basis of individual features and merits - that is a basic cornerstone of a liberal democratic society, and it is indeed the business of society to promote such an attitude.

3. Prevention of the Tendency of Acting Out Prejudice and Bias
Now, if we look closely at the concept of hate crime we see that the most important feature of hate crimes is fact neither the crime nor the attitudinal component, but the conjunction of the two. In effect, I argued in my former posting that one of the most salient reasons for society to have a hate crime policy is not the presence of bias and prejudice, not the presence of crime, but the presence of behaviour where people act out prejudice and crime in the form of criminal acts. In effect, it would seem that the most apt target of a preventive strategy would be exactly that.

Such a strategy is basically about building and promoting a clear and widely embraced culture of tolerance. While we may dislike each other and hold prejudiced views about each other, there is a limit to what we are licensed to do on the basis of that. This limit is not special, it is the same limit that we are not allowed to cross for any other reason as well (such as purely selfish ones). Thus, it is defined by criminal law. However, as society becomes culturally and socially more pluralistic, instances of people stepping over these limits due to bias and/or prejudice based on group-membership becomes more and more important to address from a basic societal point of view. Again, liberal democratic ideology basically celebrates difference. Thus, it is only to be expected that intra-societal socio-cultural variation is increasing. The same effect is equally (if not more) expected when several liberal democratic countries join up to form a union, like the EU. But even then, there is a limit to how much of difference is compatible with a decent society. We may think whatever we like about other people and groups, but we may not break the law because of such thoughts. This is the minimal portion of toleration that has to be in place for civilization to endure.

4. Preventing the Damage of Hate Crime
Now, quite obviously, preventing the aspect of hate crime mentioned in the former section comes down to the interest of society to prevent serious damage – in that case to basic building-blocks of a decent society. However, equally obvious, this is not the only damage done through hate crimes. Hate crimes do damage also by increasing the harm to crime victims (a view pursued foremost by Paul Iganski), but also by attacking the collective confidence and security of whole communities (as argued by, e.g. Barbara Perry). Moreover, we need to consider how patterns of hate crime may create negative spirals of self-reinforcing mechanisms. At a workshop in our project in Strasbourg in May this year, one of the several members of the European parliament that we spoke to pointed to how the acting out of bias and prejudice based on group membership against individuals of the targeted group can be expected to give rise to a similar outlook in the group to which the victim belongs towards the group to which the perpetrator belongs. This is a damage of sorts that connects closely to the aspect of hate crime addressed in the preceding section. We will meet both Barbara and Paul, in addition to a number of other scholars of the philosophy and theory of hate crime and related subjects, at a workshop in Gothenburg in just over a week from now, and I'm sure that more nuances and details on these aspects will appear in our discussions.

What is interesting to note, is that these damages may by themselves be targets of preventive policy. That is, even if hate crimes cannot always be prevented, the damage they do may be possible to at least mitigate. What I want to hold out here is that such prevention may come down to two rather different things. What is more, me and my German colleague in the project, Michael Fingerle, are hypothesising that, actually, some of these different approaches may be in severe latent conflict.

Roughly, we may distinguish, first, between preventive policies aiming for damage control and policies aiming for what in public health is known as primary prevention. Damage control is about going in when the damage is already under way and mitigate it is some manner. In the case of hate crime, an example of damage control would be if, for instance, society offers special counseling and support to hate crime victims. A primary prevention strategy, in contrast, works with the aim of having all potential victims (that is, virtually everyone belonging to a group at risk) prepared beforehand. We may also distinguish between applying such strategies at the individual or collective level. In the latter case, the strategy would work with not only the (potential) victim, but with the entire group, membership of which is what explains (potential) victimisation.

Michael likes to talk about these things in terms of resilience, a notion popular in social psychology and sociology. To be resilient is, basically, to be such that even when you are under strain, you hold up and is able to continue functioning in a good way. The idea, then, is to mitigate or prevent damage caused by hate crime by strengthening the resilience of individuals and/or groups. However, Michael has pointed out that this may mean very different things.

A classic idea about resilience of individuals or social groups is that they are equipped with psychological, cultural, social and other resources that help them stand up to external threats. However, in later decades a rather different approach to resilience has emerged, where the notion of coping has come into focus. This latter notion is markedly different from the classic resilience idea. To manage strains or external threats by coping is, basically, to give in and accept. Now, what has struck us when discussing this is that this latter strategy, at least in the hate crime case, would seem to go against the former one. If you respond to external strain in the form of hate crime by continuously accept the situation and adapt you may indeed succeed in mitigating some of the damage of the crime. However, in other respects you will actually add to this damage. In the individual case, maintaining resilience through coping can end up in the situation where you never leave your home due to the acceptance of the situation that you are a potential hate crime victim. In the case of entire groups, the coping strategy becomes quite ugly, meaning basically that oppressed people accept and adapt to the whims of the oppressor. In both cases, the end result seems to be that, first, hate crime does more damage than it would otherwise have done and, second, the chance of establishing a sort of resilience where individuals and groups are less prone to be damaged by hate crimes in the first place is considerably weakened.

Since the coping approach to resilience is currently very popular, this has given rise to some concern about what sort of preventive hate crime strategies are currently being deployed across the EU. Everything said above points to the importance of such policies being anything else than short-sighted.

Now, it is probably as obvious to anyone who reads this as to us in the project that the various aspects of hate crime that may be targeted by preventive policy connect to each other in various ways. One example is the last aspect discussed, where it is obvious that ideas about preventing or mitigating damage from hate crimes needs to be considered in the light of how the attitudinal aspect and the acting out aspect may be targeted. Another example is how the first aspect (general crime prevention), if successful, would seem to provide us with a situation where all of the other aspects become less problematic.