Disability Hate Crime – ‘Only having a laugh’

Paul Dodenhoff

A number of months ago, I was walking through Preston mid-afternoon with a group of people, and suddenly a number of eggs rained down upon us from a second floor window above a shop. Glancing up, we witnessed two retreating, laughing males, probably about 18 to 20 years old. Luckily the eggs missed and no damage was done to either pride or clothing, nor was the incident reported to anybody as far as I’m aware.

Similarly, I was on a bus ride not long before that incident, where a group of rowdy schoolboys about 14 to 16 years old sitting on the upper deck of the bus, started throwing empty pop cans and spitting out of the bus windows at the passengers below as they exited the bus at a stop. This was reported to the driver of the bus, by one of the ‘victims’ of the incident.

A couple of silly incidents in which many would probably put down to the ‘egg-citability’ of youth (if you excuse the pun) and who would no doubt offer the excuse of ‘we were just bored’ or ‘ we only having a laugh’ if ever asked to explain their actions. The ‘victims’ of these pranks were white, seemingly abled-bodied and of mixed age group and gender, and the offenders were all seemingly abled-bodied, male and white as far as I could tell.

It’s fair to say that the incidents were relatively minor, and on the surface would not possibly be seen as having the same roots as ‘hate crime’ nor of bias or prejudice, unless it was tentatively viewed as bias and prejudice directed at people just for being ‘adults’.

However, if the victims of these incidents had either been all disabled, black, or visibly of Muslim or Jewish religion, then both of these incidents may have been seen in a much more sinister light, and indeed in terms of disablism, racism and Islamophobia or anti-Semitism.

While the incidents outlined above are probably not that an uncommon experience for many people, surveys and polls indicate that for a significant portion of disabled people, this sort of behaviour is a daily experience. Anecdotal evidence also indicates that disablism, racism, homophobia, sexism or Islamophobia and anti-Semitism may be indeed much more common and widespread within the UK than attitude surveys and opinion polls often indicate.

Like all crime in general, ‘hate crime’ directed towards race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and the disabled, is far more likely to be committed by young males, rather than females, and by many who also offer the explanation of ‘I was only having a laugh’ as the primary motivation of such behaviour.

Unfortunately for the victim, there is nothing particularly funny in having unwanted pranks, jokes and negative attention directed at you and your identity. Especially, as such behaviour doesn’t always stay as a one off and relatively ‘minor’ incident as the above, but may quickly escalate into long term abuse, harassment and violence. This is especially true for ‘hate crime’ directed at mental health and mental impairment.

As an abled-bodied person researching the underlying motivation behind disability hate crime, it was indeed interesting and largely informative to directly observe, witness and experience the childish behaviour outlined above and to wonder how this type of behaviour actually fits in (or not) with current academic thinking about ‘hate crime’.

Firstly, the perpetrators of ‘hate crime’ are indeed far more likely to be male than female, and are often not the ‘out and out’ psychopaths, extremists or bigots that the media may often portray, but are often distinguishable only by their ordinariness.

Secondly, it is pretty much taken as ‘fact’ within the academic world that the emotion of ‘hate’ may have very little to do with acts of ‘hate crime’, and where such abuse, harassment and violence is often transitory in nature, highly opportunistic and sometimes ‘knee-jerk’ reaction(s) to the small scale frictions of day to day life and human interaction.

However, that is not to say that powerful emotions are not involved. Certainly, if the emotion of ‘hate’ is not present within ‘hate crime’ committed against race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality or disability, it may be much harder to ignore the impression that perpetrators of ‘hate crime’ do seem to be very ‘angry’ over something, and are often behaving in a way as if some kind of ‘slight’ has indeed been committed towards them by the unfortunate victim.

Sometimes, ‘hate crime’ begins with relatively minor incidents such as the above, and may quickly generate into a ‘feeding’ frenzy of anger, abuse, harassment and violence. Primarily, perpetrators of ‘hate crime’ may actually consider any apathy displayed towards their behaviour or lack of social intervention as evidence that the community may actually condone their actions rather than condemn them, and are therefore only displaying actions that others would like to do too, but just haven’t got the ‘bottle’ to do it.

Certainly, the murder of Soldier Lee Rigby in 2013 by Islamic extremists, and negative political and media stories of disability benefit fraud may have outraged and motivated a small number of the UK public enough to want to enact acts of ‘retaliation’ against these social groups. However, ‘hate crime’ against both Muslims and the disabled have existed long before the murder of Lee Rigby or negative political rhetoric and media reporting of benefit fraud.

This is where a social analysis of the UK as a deeply hierarchical society, may be extremely useful in highlighting where bias and prejudices actually originates from, and to illuminate how bias and prejudice within the UK is consistently being reproduced across time and social history. A seemingly ‘modern’, ‘civilised’ and ‘equal’ UK, but where your social standing and importance as a person may be as much determined by your age, gender, skin colour, religion, sexuality, dress sense, appearance and ‘looks’, as it is by your actual achievements within the social world.

That is not to deny that improvements have not been made. However, it can’t also be denied that there is much political capital to be made out of race, ethnicity, religion and disability, and it is therefore no surprise that some individuals may react to negative discourse produced within the political world and the media, by those intentionally playing the immigration, fear of terrorism or benefit culture ‘cards’. Often with disastrous results, particularly if you happen to belong to those social groups that largely suffer the backlash of such blatant political and populist opportunism, that may play on genuine concerns and fears about the social world that people may hold.

Many acts of ‘hate crime’ have indeed been argued to be ‘defensive’ in nature, where male perpetrators of violence excuse their behaviour as protecting their neighbourhood or community. Similarly, acts of abuse, harassment and violence may be consistently directed at mentally impaired people from within the local community itself, particularly by direct neighbours of the victim.

Certainly, abuse, harassment and violence may be used to send a very loud social message, not only to the victim but also to the identity group in which the victim belongs to. However, ‘hate crime’ may also highlight some of the genuine fears and insecurities that people generally suffer from, within this highly complex social world.

Anecdotal evidence from both the victims of ‘hate crime’ and the perpetrators of ‘hate crime’ may actually be very important for analysing the true underlying motivations behind the abuse, harassment and violence directed towards certain social groups. Certainly, some perpetrators may be misguided to believe that they are protecting their communities for perceived intrusions or ‘slights’. However, who is to decide whether these beliefs or perceptions are genuinely held beliefs that need to be corrected, or are just poor excuses for inexcusable behaviour, committed only out of boredom or for ‘just having a laugh’.

In my view, the motivation behind ‘hate crime’ is more much more likely to be picked up from the common language perpetrators use, rather than by mounds of empirical or statistical evidence. Unfortunately, in a world where people are obsessed with and are frightened into using numerical measurements, indicators and targets, there seems to be a current shift away from qualitative research and back towards empirical evidence. A move which may work to further muddy the waters of ‘hate crime’ rather than illuminate and clarify its underlying motivation(s).

For example, anecdotal evidence suggests that economic alienation may be responsible or partially responsible for some incidents of ‘hate crime’, where the perpetrator of the crime actually blames the victim’s identity group for the perpetrators problems and life circumstances.  However, empirical evidence suggests that there is little co-relation between economic downturns, recession and rates of ‘hate crime’ committed against race, religion and disability etc. So, who is correct?

Well in fact, both types of evidence may be correct.

I recently undertook a small scale study in the northwest of England, and there is evidence to suggest that some people never actually move out of high levels of poverty from the moment they are born, to the very moment they die. These conditions are often found in highly complex situations, but are actually being reproduced from one generation of a family to the next, and onto the next. There is no hope of social mobility for social groups like these, and not always because of a high dependency on benefits or a lack of motivation to change things around, but through circumstance and actually being born into the wrong place at the wrong time, and to the wrong people.

While empirical evidence suggests that ‘hate crime’ may not be driven by ‘macro’ events such as recessions and economic downturns, anecdotal evidence suggests that at a ‘micro’ level of personal economics, people do actually look to blame others for their personal plight. That is the only way some people can make sense of their own immediate social world and their lack of progression within it.

This is why politicians and the media playing the race card or the disability benefit fraud card is often a much more dangerous tactic than simply encouraging public support for self-interested policies of one kind or another, but leads not just to abuse and violence for some social groups, but death.

Throughout world history, we have seen mass exterminations of people, not solely born out of bias or prejudice, but because of the mass blaming of people for the economic, social or moral woes of their country. While, the UK may be a long way off that situation at present, the seeds of discontent may have unfortunately been sowed a long time ago. And they have been sowed in the heartlands where poverty is largely ignored as a ‘blip’ on Britain’s social landscape, and where ‘having a laugh’ at somebody else’s expense may be an important indication of something more sinister happening within our social world.

To dismiss anecdotal evidence as unreliable evidence, is to dismiss mountains of research that indicates a deep-rooted problem within the power differentials and social hierarchical nature of British social culture. However, it is a problem that is unlikely to go away on its own, and one that is often intentionally or unintentionally prodded into life by our political ‘elite’ and their media associates.

Paul Dodenhoff is a part-time PhD student at Lancaster University Law School. He is currently developing a theoretical framework around the motivation to commit ‘hate crime’ against physical and mental impairment. He has written about disability hate crime for a number of websites, including www.disabled-world.com. He has previously conducted a number of small research projects surrounding health and safety motivation, the motivation to learn and the NHS productive ward.


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