Politics of hate: is everyone a bigot but me?

Buxton Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 25 November, Devonshire Dome, Buxton


The self-image of Western societies as cosmopolitan, liberal and tolerant has rapidly collapsed recently as a darker view has taken hold of people as extreme, hate-filled and hurtful. Accordingly, controlling ‘hate speech’ has become a major focus for critics and campaigners, and increasingly for 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 data show 155,841 offences recorded in the year to March, up 26 per cent from the previous year – with recorded 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 has grown to 120,000.

But 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’. Yet 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’. But 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’. Greater Manchester Police now recognise ‘alternative sub-culture’ hate incidents based on criticism of someone’s appearance such as Goths, Emos or Punks.

Others say 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 the views aired spread hate and division. More broadly, fuelled by identity politics, competing groups too often accuse other identities of hate and bigotry. The demonising of those we disagree with is used on all sides of politics. On the one side people are labelled as hateful TERFs, gammon, alt-right, xenophobic; on the other as hate-driven snowflakes, misogynists, Remoaners, pinko commies, cry-bullies and more.

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? What should we understand by hate speech and how do we account for its rise to become a central to how Western societies are organising their legal systems and public life?

Dennis Hayes
professor of education, University of Derby; founder and director, Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF); author, The Death of Academic Freedom? Free speech and censorship

Ike Ijeh
author; architect; founder, London Architecture Walks; founding signatory, Don’t Divide Us

Liz Kershaw
broadcaster and writer

Andy Shaw
co-founder, Comedy Unleashed

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