Word Crimes? Thought Crimes?

Police have decided that:

“No criminal offence took place when a plane banner carrying the message “White Lives Matter Burnley” was flown over a Premier League match between Manchester City and Burnley,”[1]

The banner displayed at Burnley’s game

No doubt, some people will be relieved and delighted by that decision this morning and will hail it as a victory for common-sense. Others will be angered and distressed. “How can the police say no crime was committed? Surely a hate crime was in operation here?”

Others, whatever our views of the rights and wrongs of a banner will have immediately thought

“hold on … if this wasn’t a crime, then where does that leave the many people who have been stopped, or had visits from the police, maybe even found themselves in the middle of an investigation with the threat of prosecution because what they said or did was perceived to be a possible hate crime.”

You see, the banner may not be specifically or overtly racist. It doesn’t use derogatory language, it doesn’t threaten physical harm, there will be some who see a symbol like that provocatively displayed and feel that it is carefully designed to cause hurt, offense and fear. It was displayed to respond to the statement “Black Lives Matter” at a football game and for some the message of a counter statement in that context is effectively “No, they don’t, white lives matter more.”

Whilst the banner itself does not say anything overtly racist, there may be for some enough in its to create the feel of dog whistle signals.  And to be fair, alongside overt mockery, threats, intimidation and actual violence, people from ethnic minorities have over the years experienced more subtle forms of racism with the underlying message “you don’t measure up, you don’t belong.” A union jack flag displayed somewhere where it is always in their eye line, “just to be patriotic” a UKIP poster plastered on their car. There is nothing racist in itself about those symbols but they can be used to send an offensive message.

For what it is worth, I believe the decision that this is not a crime to pursue and to prosecute is the right one.  Was choosing to respond to one protest statement in this context crass? Yes. Did it have the potential to cause offense? Yes. Could there have been better ways to respond? Yes, even the phrase “All Lives Matter” would have been better. Was it motivated by racism? I don’t know. And that’s the thing, we are getting into a world where we are claiming to read people’s minds hearts, to second guess their motives, to move from the outer event to claiming to second guess intentions. This is something that God alone can do.

Here, in this decision, we have seen the folly of how the state has been increasingly interacting with peoples’ thoughts, words and actions, not just over the past few years but also through the past few decades. What they have done is made a logical misstep.  It is true to say that:

“All crime is sin”

But it is not true to say the reverse:

               “All sin is crime.”

There are lots of things that we would identify as sin, that the Bible names as such but we would not expect to be against the law. It is not that these things aren’t wrong, it is just that the police, courts and prison are not the best place to deal with them. 

There are lots of things that we can say and do that are potentially offensive. That doesn’t mean that the right thing to do is to ban them. Firstly because, the level of offense felt is usually subjective.[2] Secondly, because there are other ways to challenge and correct sin

Finally, it is worth reminding each other, that just because we have freedom to say and do things doesn’t mean we should. It may not be against the law to cause offense but that doesn’t mean we should go around seeking to be offensive.  Rather, we should seek to love our neighbours as ourselves.


[1] https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/uknews/no-crime-committed-in-white-lives-matter-banner-stunt-say-police/ar-BB15TbiW?ocid=spartan-ntp-feeds

[2] Note, I will republish an old article at some point which argues that whilst the  thought process involved in taking offense is subjective, the actual existence of offence is still in some ways objective.

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