The politics of hate: is everyone a bigot but me?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London


The self-image of Western societies as cosmopolitan, liberal and tolerant has collapsed of late, with a darker view taking hold of people as extreme, hate-filled and hurtful. For example, in the wake of the Hamas attacks on Israel, anti-Semitism – ‘the oldest hatred’ – has come forcefully into public view. Accordingly, controlling ‘hate speech’ has become a major focus for critics and campaigners, as well as legislators and regulators. They proceed in the belief that, as one Guardian commentator put it: ‘Words of hate create an ethos of hate, an atmosphere of hate, a political, social Petri dish of hate. Eventually, spoken words become deeds.’

Campaigners say escalating incidences of hate justify interventions. The most recent published date show 155,841 offences recorded in the year to March – up 26 per cent from the previous year – with hate crimes against transgender people seeing the biggest increase, jumping by 56 per cent since last year. Meanwhile, in the past five years, the number of recorded non-crime hate incidents (NCHI) has grown to 120,000.

Critics say the nebulous definition and subjective interpretation of hate, which is largely in the eye of the victim or reporter, is trivialising such ‘crimes’. But is there more to this issue than definitional disarray? Some say the problem is being inflated by ‘fishing’ exercises. The Citizen’s Advice Bureau, for example, says ‘it is always best’ to ‘act early’ and report incidents even if ‘unsure whether the incident is a criminal offence… or serious enough to be reported’. Meanwhile, Police Scotland has promised to set up a new unit to tackle ‘hate crimes’ such as misgendering and denying men access to ladies’ toilets.

Some say that what is labelled ‘hate speech’ is increasingly being weaponised to silence opponents and narrow viewpoint diversity. Groups such as Stop Funding Hate aim to persuade advertisers to pull support from broadcasters and publications on the grounds that views aired spread hate and division. More broadly, fuelled by identity politics, competing groups too often accuse other identities of hate and bigotry – demonising those we disagree with is a tactic used across the political spectrum. On one side, people are labeled hateful TERFs, gammon, alt-right or xenophobic, while the other side are hate-driven snowflakes, misogynists, Remoaners, pinko commies and cry-bullies.

What are the prospects of making political exchange less toxic and productive, if labelling those we disagree with as hate-mongers continues to escalate? How should defenders of freedom best make the case for free speech over hate speech? How should we understand what counts as hate speech, and how do we account for its rise to become central to how Western societies are organising their legal systems and public life?

Kate Harris
co-founder and trustee, LGB Alliance; formerly Brighton Women’s Centre and Brighton Women’s Aid

Eve Kay
executive producer unscripted; International Emmy winner; Realscreen and Critics Choice Award winner; Creative Arts Emmy winner

Winston Marshall
musician; writer; podcast host, Marshall Matters; founding member, Mumford & Sons

Faisal Saeed Al Mutar
founder and president, Ideas Beyond Borders

Martin Wright
director, Positive News; formerly editor-in-chief, Green Futures; former director, Forum for the Future

Alastair Donald
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; convenor, Living Freedom; author, Letter on Liberty: The Scottish Question