It’s just hit the headlines that Manchester police are adding members of ‘alternative’ subcultures such as Goths, emos and metallers (I’ve never liked the term incidentally – do metal fans ‘metal’?) to a list of those at risk of hate crimes. This has caused a great deal of comment, not least from members of aforesaid subcultures who believe such moves lend them protection from hostility and prejudice or even justify them in some ineffible fashion. I’m afraid I can’t agree. I was uncomfortable when the campaign for this special status for subcultures was begun several years ago, and felt the need to write an opinion piece on it in the hope that people might think again about what I saw as a campaign for a bad law, being made with the noblest of intention, but without enough forethought.
It didn’t help that the trigger was the disgusting murder of an innocent girl at the hands of a pack of subhuman cretins. But emotive causes seldom make for good legislation. So I put my thoughts down in the hope of offering a sober counterweight to the flood of impassioned rhetoric in favour of establishing Goths – or indeed emos and metallers – as another prescribed minority. Inevitably, many disgreed vehemently. Some thought – and evidently still think – that to reject ill-thought-out legislation against assaults on, say Goths, is tantamount to supporting assaults on Goths. Far from it. I’m a fervent believer in the defence of freedom of expression and a great admirer of those with the courage to wear what pleases them in the face of the hostility of the packs of feral morons that blight our streets. But we don’t protect that with weak initiatives that create pointless paperwork while taking police away from doing what they should be doing – protecting the public, regardless of colour, creed, or indeed haircut.
My opinions on this haven’t changed much, so I thought I’d republish this little piece on the problems of expanding hate crime legislation largely un-revised. The only thing I’ve changed is the title, because it occurs to me that I’m not arguing for more tolerance for difference. If you stand out from the crowd for reasons of dress, for example, it is only human nature that you will attract attention, and that some of that attention will be unsympathetic. That’s just life. We don’t have a right to be admired and shouldn’t have a right to immunity from disdain or even ridicule. We should, however, have an absolute right to freedom from physical assault or intimidation. So, I’m advocating greater intolerance of society’s hooligan elements, both on the streets and in culture. What we have is a police force increasingly engaged in box-ticking, in hunting down people who make jokes on Facebook while football thugs run riot on a weekly basis. Initiatives, like this pointless move to categorise alternative subcultures as oppressed minorities, will only make this sort of situation worse. So, ladies and gentlemen, I submit a plea for intolerance…
It’s seldom good news when the mainstream media turns its attention to Goth. Everybody from the alternative scene is familiar with the intermittent, ignorant jibes from the press. Right-wing rags print stories warning worrying parents about the telltale signs to watch out for to prevent their offspring becoming Goths, while left-leaning broadsheets mock the Goth scene for its lack of ‘social relevancy’ and failure to exhibit the working class or ethnic roots that excite white, middle class commentators. And woe betide the Goth scene if a high profile crime is committed, where the perpetrator happens to dress in black. Open season is swiftly declared on the subculture, with bigoted editors printing pictures of tenuously-associated bands, while hacks comb their albums for out-of-context lyrics that ‘prove’ that everybody who’s ever worn a black leather jacket is Evil.
Recent media coverage of Goth has been even more troubling, though for altogether different reasons. The horrific murder of Sophie Lancaster, in a Lancashire park on August 11th, 2007, and subsequent trial, gripped the British media’s attention. In part, because of the truly appallingly brutal nature of the attack on a defenceless young girl, but also because the only motive for the wholly unprovoked assault appears to have been the alternative style of Sophie, and her boyfriend Robert Maltby who she was trying to protect when she was murdered. Her mother made the brave decision to make public pictures of Sophie in a coma in the days before she lost her fight for life. Even the most stony-hearted cynic couldn’t fail to be moved by the sight of this lovely, vulnerable young girl, her precious life brutally extinguished by vermin.
The press reacted with sadness and sympathy, particularly in light of the humbling dignity of Sophie’s mother, who expressed a hope that her death might not be in vain, hopefully serving as a horrific reminder of the consequences of intolerance. The media also reacted with anger, reflecting more closely the attitude of Sophie’s boyfriend Robert, who understandably couldn’t find words for how he felt about those who had robbed him of his soul mate in such an unspeakably vile and cowardly fashion. When pictures of the two killers were published last week, there was a certain depressing predictability about the identity of the moronic duo. Both, of course, were chavs, members of the sportswear-clad packs that plague Britain’s streets in the 21st century. Some commentators saw the attack as a symptom of the conflict between chavs and Goths among UK youngsters. Few cared to mention that this ‘conflict’ is almost always one way, that one of the many contrasts between Goth and chav culture is the essential pacifism of the former and the gratuitous, feral aggression of the latter.
There has been a call to extend hate crime legislation to extend to ‘protect subcultural people’ among sections of the Goth community, with an on-line petition to that effect being presented to parliament. But is this appropriate? Why is a crime worse if motivated by ‘hate’? One of the most disturbing aspects of the Sophie Lancaster case was the almost total lack of motive, hatred included. Besides which, we’d end up in the absurd position of lawyers trying to prove in court who was, or was not, legally a Goth. Such laws only feed discrimination and underline difference, while criminalising free speech, without deterring offenders who clearly have no concern for legal consequence. A murder is a murder, and while there is a case for increasing penalties for motiveless crimes like the Sophie Lancaster tragedy, it shouldn’t matter whether the victim or the perpetrator was a Goth, a Mongolian, or a Mormon. That’s what justice is about surely? A charity has been set up in Sophie’s name, the acronym translating as Stamp Out Prejudice Hatred and Intolerance Everywhere. While the sentiment is admirable, the practicality of such an ambitious campaign is surely questionable. Not least because, sad to say, sometimes negative emotions are justified – who could possibly begrudge Robert Maltby his hatred towards his attackers, or condemn the prejudice of anyone who opts not to walk past gangs of chavs alone?
If there is anything positive to be taken from this truly tragic crime, it is that it has obliged the British media to take a look at some of its own ill-informed prejudices. It was impossible to look at Sophie Lancaster without seeing beyond the piercings and dyed hair to see a loving, beautiful young lady, who died trying to protect the man she loved. Or to look at her attackers without wondering why we are feeding and sheltering such creatures when there are still shortages of donor organs in this country. We should be wary of blaming any art for the actions of individuals, but perhaps some of the media could look a little harder at the ‘urban’ music beloved of the baseball cap brigade, and cut a little more slack for the music and culture created by the black leather jacket contingent. Goths like to look different, and difference attracts suspicion. It’s simply human nature. But we would do well to remember that the world has always suffered more at the hands of those, like chavs, who are violently obsessed with everybody looking the same, than those, who like Sophie, just liked to look different.