Bob’s Law


Three Tales of Two Cities

I am a victim. A victim of a hate crime. Many years ago, in a land far away, I had a dispute with a taxi driver. I was, I think rightly, aggrieved that my journey home from the office had taken several times the usual duration since the first half of the trip had, despite my repeated warnings, been in the wrong direction. My proposal that we adjust the fee to reflect this did not, however, go down well and I was eventually, after much huffing and puffing, informed that as a Chinese, my driver was “better” than me, a mere Westerner.

I had been verbally abused, the abuse had been made on the basis of my race, an open and shut case, Your Honour.

I did not see it that way at the time (nor do I now). I thought it was funny. And I still do. Whatever genetic superiority my interlocutor may have thought his race had given him, its real-world impact was obviously limited. Not only did I know the streets of his native city rather better than he, but I was running a hedge fund, while he was driving a beaten-up Toyota Crown for ten bucks an hour.

It was, I felt, less an insult than a marker of a weapons-grade lack of self-awareness, less a trauma, more an amusing anecdote to be trotted out over a Pimm’s at the club.

My sanguine approach to such issues is not, of course, the only one available. Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei was sufficiently aggrieved at being told by the MP Bob Stewart to “Go back to Bahrain” that the latter recently acquired a conviction for a racially aggravated public order offence. Col. Stewart is considering an appeal, so we shall content ourselves with noting that Paul Jarvis, prosecuting, said “Mr Alwadaei felt upset and humiliated”, and move on.

On Sunday morning, there were, no doubt, several children in London who felt “upset and humiliated”. For, the previous evening, families trying to leave a McDonald’s had been forced to run a gauntlet of protestors chanting, “Shame on you”, not as a comment on their dietary choices, but because, by patronising the British franchise of a restaurant chain whose Israeli franchise provides meals to the IDF, they were, somehow, supporting the mass killing of Palestinian children.

At the time of writing, the protesters have not been arrested. The police were aware of the situation as it unfolded, supervising the families leaving the restaurant (a word which, while technically accurate, never feels entirely appropriate for McDonald’s) but they seem to have contented themselves with, in the words of the Daily Mail, keeping a “watchful eye”. That the offence of causing a public nuisance (“creates a risk of, or causes, serious harm to the public or a section of the public”, “serious harm” being defined as including “serious distress”) was being committed appears not to have occurred to them. Because which ten-year-old, when forced to walk through a volley of abuse from a crowd of baying protesters, would feel the slightest distress? Most kids love being publicly shamed.

A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but without consistency, the law ceases to be law. If we are all equal before it, the distress caused to a moppet in the process of digesting a chicken Mcnugget should be of equal import to that felt by Mr Alwadaei. But, while this may hold in theory, it does not appear to feed through into practice.

It is this which is most corrosive about the current situation, the feeling that some are more equal than others. In truth, this has been growing for a while, Mrs Smith’s burglary often appearing to be less important to the police than Mrs (formerly Mr) Jones’ misgendering. But whereas these cases created a hierarchy of crimes, the events of the past weeks suggest a hierarchy of victims and criminals. Mr Alwadaei’s “upset” is more important than that of a juvenile fast-food customer, and those whose anti-semitism derives from their support for the Palestinians are treated with greater tolerance than, we might assume, those who base it on their fondness for a certain baleful Austrian.

Balance must be restored. But how?

To many, the answer is clear. The law must be enforced equally. If Col. Bob has been done, then so must all those who cause upset in their support of the Palestinians. The law must be applied equally to all. Fiat iustitia, ruat caelum.

But, as Gandhi pointed out, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. If you wish the McDonald’s protestors to be prosecuted for upsetting the tweenage diabetics-in-waiting, then you must accept that Col. Stewart was bang to rights. If they caused distress, so did he. And you must also accept that people who cause distress by misgendering should be prosecuted. As should those who provoke aggravation by praying silently outside abortion clinics. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Two thousand and more years ago, the Stoics invented what has come to be known as the cognitive theory of emotion. Whenever anything happens to us, it causes a brief flicker of reaction. But at that point, we have a choice. We can decide to let the flicker burst into a full-blown emotion, or we can decide our reaction was unreasonable and let it die out. The thoughts of a bunch of long-dead Greeks may not seem relevant to our lofty heights of techno-modernity, but modern neuro-scientists agree with them. As do psychologists, whose current gold standard therapy, CBT, is explicitly based on their teachings.

What we are doing then, when we seek to criminalise speech on the basis of the upset it caused, is prosecuting one person for another’s choice. Mr Alwadaei could have chosen to laugh off Col. Stewart’s remark. He could have chosen to ignore it. Instead, he chose, according to the prosecutor, to become upset. And it was for that choice, a choice he did not make, that the colonel was convicted.  And so, to my right-wing chums, I gently say, is this a standard you wish to become embedded? Is this the reason why, with one of yours in the hospital, you would send theirs to the morgue?

Would it not be better to seek to change the law? Not to try to get Col. Stewart off on a technicality but to ensure that there are no more Col. Stewarts on either side. To bring the law into line with what we know of ourselves? We bang on about personal responsibility, why not insist people put their “big boy pants” on and take responsibility for their own emotional states?

For, free speech is valuable. Too valuable to be allowed to be circumscribed by unprovable claims of distress. It is tempting, as Saul Alinsky counselled in his Rules for Radicals, to “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules”, but it is better, in this case, just to tear it up. The government has a year left. Plenty of time to take an axe to all the “hurty words” legislation cluttering the statute book. It would be sensible, it would be right, and it would free up police to pursue actual criminals.

They could call it “Bob’s Law”.

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.