Picture credit: Police Scotland

No joke

Scotland’s Hate Crime Act is absurd, but nobody’s laughing

Artillery Row

April Fools’ Day was traditionally marked in Scotland by Hunting the Gowk, a jolly tradition where gulls were sent on pointless or “sleeveless” errands. Officers in Police Scotland may find they will be similarly engaged in ridiculous quests on the morning of the First of April but, unfortunately for them, the nonsense will not end at midday. If we had a less hapless First Minister or a less humourless government, one might think this was all an elaborate joke, a fantastical attempt to unseat the Panorama Spaghetti farm as the cream of April Fools’ gags. Sadly, for the many people who are likely to be targeted with vexatious and spurious complaints, the coming months promise to be no laughing matter.

TS Eliot, never one for frivolity unless it involved felines, said that April was the cruellest month, and many fear that, rather than cracking down on hate, this April will see a rash of malicious activity from activists who have already boasted of “hit lists” naming badly behaved women ripe for punishment. Sober commentators will tell you that we are making a fuss about nothing, that the courts will require a high standard of proof, and that a “reasonable person” would have to find the material likely to result in “stirring up hatred”. All this may be true but it does not follow that the Hate Crime Act will not upend lives and act as a gag on free speech. The process of investigation can become the punishment, as people on the sharp end find equipment confiscated, their lives raked over, and their reputations damaged.  Patrick Harvie, a minister in Humza Yousaf’s government, threw around accusations of transphobia during the progress of the Hate Crime Bill. Is a minister in the Scottish Government not a “reasonable person” and what does this say about the First Minister who continues to allow him a portfolio? And, of course, when commentators point, po-faced, to legislation in other countries, they conveniently forget or deliberately ignore that these jurisdictions also protect women. I suppose we should not be surprised, deliberately ignoring and forgetting the protection of women is an area where the Scottish Government leads by example.

On Saturday morning, I was on BBC Radio Scotland discussing the Act. My opposite number from Celebrate Scotland suggested that we just need to be kind and keep our own views private so as not to hurt people. Astonishingly, she believed this would not affect freedom of speech or belief: having scanned Articles 9 and 10, I cannot find the caveat that says you have a right to express your views aloud unless you are upsetting the bright young things of civic Scotland, employees of Scottish Government funded lobby groups, or members of the Scottish Parliament by voicing such pesky opinions like “you can’t change sex”. And there is no doubt that some do find this, not just upsetting, but deeply hateful. The most famous — and arguably the most generous — woman in Scotland, JK Rowling, was reported to the police for the monstrous crime of calling a male person a man. The word “Orwellian” is overused, but appropriately this Act comes into force on what may well be a bright cold day in April. 

And yet, and yet… despite all our genuine — and well founded — fears, we haven’t been able to stop finding amusement in the absurdity. On Saturday afternoon a life-sized Hate Monster, cunningly posing as the Easter Bunny, gambolled around Holyrood to the delight and bewilderment of tourists. The muppet-esque monster is the creation of Rebekah Chapman, one of the outrageously talented and creative women who have come together to fight a raft of terrible law with crafts, humour and raw intelligence. Meanwhile, fittingly, Humza Yousaf defended his Act from a soft play centre, presumably hoping the other children would be told by their mammies to play nicely with the new boy.

Georgette Heyer, a far less serious writer than Orwell or Eliot, nevertheless knew a thing or two about human nature: she understood that while you might find sympathy in affliction with those you disliked, a shared sense of the ridiculous was stronger, more binding and “prohibited dislike” . Laughter is said to transcend divisions and strengthen human affinity. If Scotland really is mired in the sort of dangerous hate the Government are keen to persuade us is rife in our land, perhaps we all need more joy. It’s appropriate, therefore, that Comedy Unleashed have planned a show on the First of April to talk about the Hate Monster. It may be the first test of whether Scotland slides into becoming the dour land of the new Major Generals and the Ministry of Truth. Let’s hope the laughter wins and Hunting the Gawk becomes, once more, a benign tradition.

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