The bullet holes in the wall stirred a memory.
They had left the building in front of me pock marked and scarred. I was in Croatia last week for a conference of European Anglican bishops and memories of the Serbo-Croatian conflict of 1991-94 littered the towns. It wasn’t clear if they had left the buildings with the scars of the war as a tribute to the suffering, or if they just didn’t have enough money to repair them.
One of the places where I had been asked to speak was a Church in a village which 500 years ago had hosted a historic meeting that affected the course of the Reformation. Next to the Church was a mass grave. The bodies of 200 local men lay in it. They were slaughtered by Serb soldiers in 1992. The Serbo-Croatian war was as complex as it was hateful.
The bullet holes in the walls reminded me of a small restaurant in Burgundy. It lies in the purple hills just east of a tiny hill village called Taizé . There is a mixed Protestant/Catholic monastery there. About 3,000 people under 30 descend on the place every week in the summer. I used to take groups of students there. And once or twice a week I would escape the rigour of prayer and bread and soup for a meal in the hills.
I wondered why the outside of the place was so scruffy and pockmarked while the inside was so welcoming. The walls were as scarred as the cooking was rich.
I asked the owner why the outside had been left in that condition? “Because that’s where the Bosche put my father up against the wall and shot him in 1944,” he said. For as long as he was alive, the wall was a memory to his father. It was a memory to the anger and hatred of the soldiers who had come and murdered the civilians. As in France, so in Croatia. The anger and the bitterness were not very far below the surface.
However you do history, it’s the story of the strong attacking the weak and taking their land, their food and their people. The scars are the same the world over. Hutus and Tutsis in Africa. Russians and Ukrainians in Asia. Wherever you look history has left the scars of old suffering and old antipathies across the globe. Even multiculturalism when the numbers get out of control risks stoking up the fear of the ‘the other’.
So where did the idea that we could legislate against hatred come from?
Hatred, misunderstanding and fear of the other run through human history as community memories alongside love, infatuation and friendship. That’s what it is to be human. Good and evil, love and hatred, mixed together.
In the UK, it was the threats by Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie, alongside the murders of 9/11 (2001) that led to the Government wanting to contain anger and revenge in the public place. So the Racial and Religious hatred act of 2006 was born.
On the plus side, it’s obviously a good thing to make the public space as free as possible from vituperation. But how do you balance that with justified criticism of other people’s’ belief and behavior?
Perhaps it was no great surprise that comedians led the protests against the hate laws. Rowan Atkinson said: “I appreciate that this measure is an attempt to provide comfort and protection, but unfortunately it is a wholly inappropriate response far more likely to promote tension between communities than tolerance.”
The two most telling criticisms of hate crime legislation are firstly that it does not work; and it secondly that it cripples free speech. The repellant anti-Semitism that seems to be part and parcel of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party makes it painfully obvious that passing laws, let alone applying them fairly, hasn’t done much to stop that particular hatred.
Whether or not you write a book criticizing the cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition, or holding Isis to account for their application of Islamic sexual ethics by pushing homosexuals off tall buildings, or Saudi Arabia’s religiously inspired brutalities against Yemeni children,who decides what constitutes fair and accurate criticism, and who gets to claim it’s religious, racial or political hate crime? These categories merge.
You can outlaw actions, but you can’t pass laws against attitudes. You can make people accountable in law for what they do, but not for what they think.
Even trying to pass laws that are intended to educate people into a more acceptable mindset, as well as regulate their behavior, are doomed to failure. It’s as much of a misreading of human nature as to assume that problems of goodness and kindness can be ‘fixed’ by education. Education is vital, and we have a lot of expensive education, but it hasn’t managed to change human nature– yet.
But what if we had access to a philosophy or spirituality that encouraged loving our neighbor and turning the other cheek when attacked? GK Chesterton said that it wasn’t that such an approach had been tried and found not to work, but that it was thought to be too hard and not tried. Easier perhaps to pass futile hate laws and feel more moral about ourselves. Easier, but ineffective.