Hate speech laws are changing: ‘I am not your knacker’

Along with the Bill, a collective effort is needed to protect Travellers and ethnic minorities

Disability and Traveller campaigner Dr Rosaleen McDonagh: ‘The name-calling for me is the hardest.’ Photograph: Tom Honan

Disability and Traveller campaigner Dr Rosaleen McDonagh: ‘The name-calling for me is the hardest.’ Photograph: Tom Honan

 

Dirty knacker, spa, smelly, inbred, retard, fool, handicapped pikey. These words are the soundtrack to many people’s lives, they are not just reserved for me. Frightening words. They fill me with fear. The area of hate speech might be complex in legal terms, but its lived reality is blunt. In real life, hate speech has a very immediate momentum.

It’s not unusual or uncommon for people with impairments to be targeted. It was July 2018, between 6pm and 7pm. My regular routine on the Luas home. Tiredness brought a vacant look to my face. Simple mundane tasks meant I hardly noticed when a young man in a blue hoodie touched my arm. Not quite focusing on what was happening I understood the young man was asking me a question. The laughter from his friends filled the carriage. Yet still it took a moment for me to realise he was mimicking my cerebral palsy. Then he placed his foot on the wheel of my chair. My body went into shock, caught in the fear.

Hate crimes have no particular platforms or spaces. They happen in public and private domains

My distress raised the attention of other passengers. One couple moved closer. The woman grabbed my hand. Her partner challenged the young man and his friends. The aggression and insults were now targeted towards my new companions. There were loud lurid comments about the woman’s hijab. The remarks were of a sexual nature. As the three of us got off the Luas, we looked at each trying to process what just happened. Our hesitancy towards phoning the gardaí was bound up in the knowledge their powers are limited because current legislation around hate crime is not strong enough.

The Criminal Justice (Hate Crime) Bill 2021 for the first time introduces protections for Travellers, people with impairments and black and minority groups. A prison sentence can be part of the conviction if prosecuted for a hate crime. This new development is particularly vital for people with learning disabilities.

Hate crimes have no particular platforms or spaces. They happen in public and private domains. There have been too many incidents in my life where the joke was on me, the audience colluding with the comedian with their applause. My head goes down, my presence is diminished. It feels like you are being trampled on. Nobody notices, nobody thinks, nobody checks themselves. The media and entertainment sectors have been culprits in colluding and even amplifying various forms of hate speech.

Hate speech divides people, that is its function. It is vile in its content, purpose, and intent. The objective is to hurt, intimidate and dehumanise. Hate and its expression is concerned with power and its dynamics. Targets are chosen in a strategic way. Online and social media platforms are environments where fingers and tongues become loose and careless. Images, language, even threats, circulate freely and widely. Safe ethics and old-fashioned decency are not built into the ether.

Freedom of expression is very subjective; those of us on the receiving end of a “K” joke don’t have the same platform and cultural influence. We don’t hold the microphone. Access to the law and justice is often an arduous journey. Not being believed, the struggle to gather evidence and the sheer sense of despair is a lethal combination. The law itself has never been adequate in addressing the legal challenges presented by hate speech, although the new Bill does signal progress.

For many of us with impairments, we struggle to find safe spaces

However, the law does not operate in a vacuum. History has taught us that the law itself will not prevent or put an end to hate speech. A huge cultural shift is needed where diversity is recognised, respected and protected. But this needs leadership. It needs policy, programmes and budgets. It needs prioritisation to embed the values of dignity and inclusion.

Blowing the whistle or intervening is one way to adjust our collective moral compass. That couple on the Luas stood up to the challenge. Black Irish and minority ethnic people, our Muslim sisters and brothers, the LGBTQ+ community, people with impairments, Travellers. We deserve better. We need to collectively reinforce the value of their human rights and value of who and what we are. We have become desensitised to many forms of hurt. In our various communities we have come to expect and normalise hate speech as part of our daily lives.

The name-calling for me is the hardest. A physical act is over and done with. The name-calling is insidious; it’s very difficult to articulate how it affects your confidence. It’s part of the shaming game. For many of us with impairments, we struggle to find safe spaces. It’s up to all of us as a collective to create new and innovative ways to protect younger Travellers and ethnic minorities.

The last time someone called me names and said they were going to kill me I recorded them on my phone, before heading to my local Garda station. My retort was loud and clear: I am not your knacker.