Ian O'Doherty: 'If we criminalise hate, we better start building a few more prisons'
There can be no confusion or doubt that the Ryan family who appeared in the Lidl ad were the victims of some seriously disturbing racist abuse.
Well, I say there can be no confusion. But even though I wrote about the unfortunate family last week and explained all the ways it was racist, some social media types still insisted on claiming I'd denied that it was racist at all.
That was a timely reminder of a couple of things - for starters, the lunatics haven't just taken over the asylum, they've become the self-appointed judges of the court of public opinion as well.
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It was also a rather depressing reminder that it no longer matters what you say anymore, some people will deliberately misread it, and then deliberately misrepresent it.
The whole Ryan saga lifted the lid on some deeply unpleasant facts - racists and bigots have always been with us, but now they're enabled by social media to form groups.
Cranks used to live in deserved isolation, scorned by those who know them.
Now they just log on to their anonymous social media accounts and start spewing their weird, irrational and illogical bile.
The backlash was swift and brutal and the knuckle-draggers who lobbed incendiary grenades from behind the safety of their screens soon found themselves being the ones hounded and abused.
Watching the bigoted bullies get a taste of their own medicine was a remarkably satisfying experience and nobody is going to argue with the news that some of them will soon have their collars felt by the cops.
But we should also be careful about how we approach these matters because there's a serious risk we'll end up opening up a whole new can of worms.
Anyone who threatens a person, be it online or face to face (although these proud defenders of the white race tend to avoid face-to-face contact) deserves to answer for their crimes. But should we be going down the knee-jerk response route of creating a whole new raft of hate crime legislation?
History shows us that you can't make laws on the basis of your own distaste for an individual case.
The gardaí launched their latest diversity and integration strategy on Wednesday and Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said that the new definition would encompass: "Any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person to, in whole or in part, be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on actual or perceived age, disability, race, colour, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender."
With emotions running high after the Ryan affair, this latest initiative has received plenty of support and anyone uncomfortable with the proposals faces the inevitable accusations that they are a secret racist.
But we have already seen how these exact laws work in the UK. They've been an absolute disaster. For starters, the idea of a hate crime carrying a heavier sentence flies in the face of natural justice. As has been argued in American courts, if two men, one black and one white, are attacked in separate incidents, and both receive the same type of broken nose, should the attacker of the black guy face a heavier sentence than the person who assaulted the white guy?
After all, a broken nose hurts, regardless of your skin colour. Everyone has an opinion on such a hot button issue, but too many of them haven't based their opinions on the evidence and the facts.
The definition, as outlined by Harris, is so broad that it would prove to be virtually unworkable even in normal times - when you add in social media, it becomes both a legal quagmire and a crank's charter.
Here's a for instance - I've become used to being called "male, pale and stale".
It doesn't bother me because if you dish it out, you better be prepared to accept some incoming fire in return. But under the proposed terms, any middle-aged bloke who has been described as "male, pale and stale" has been victimised three times.
Male? That's gender. Pale? That's race/and or skin colour. Stale? That's age.
So should anyone who uses those words about men they don't like be accused of a hat-trick of hate?
When the Pope appeared here last year, there was plenty of chatter that anyone who went to see him was an apologist for child abuse. Should they be dragged up in front of a judge for expressing that opinion?
In the UK we see constant cases of transgender activists setting the cops on their critics. Invariably, the critics retaliate in kind and more valuable police time is wasted by vexatious complaints. A Scottish comedian was arrested and faced jail because he taught his girlfriend's dog to do a Nazi salute. Does anyone think it should have been a criminal matter?
The list is virtually endless.
We all know what paves the road to Hell, and while good intentions may be the impetus behind the new proposals, experience shows that they will be used by those whose intent is far from noble.
Be careful what you wish for...