Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me’ – this saying was given to us for protection when we started school. ‘Call it to anyone who tries to bully you and they will give up,’ we were told. I didn’t experience any bullying at my schools but I believe it’s now widespread among the young, via social media. Some are driven to suicide and we no longer live in a culture where such simple epithets have any meaning.

As sticks and stones have been relegated and words equated with lethal weapons, we are now all endangered, in fantasy and fact.

This new thinking was exemplified yesterday on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday. They were discussing the arrival in the UK of Franklin Graham, son of the great Billy, who for some reason has decided to begin preaching his Christian fundamentalist message in Blackpool. He openly criticises Islam, although he shares its belief that homosexuality is against God’s law. Eight thousand people have signed a petition asking for his UK visa to be revoked, as if he is a terrorist. The local authority banned adverts on buses for his preaching. ‘He can think what he likes,’ said an LGBT representative on Sunday, ‘but he is not allowed to say it.’

His crime is obvious: he has spoken against certain groups and has created a climate, as a transgendered activist once told me, ‘where violent harm can be done’.

This belief that words can kill is permeating our culture. We are so afraid of our own citizens that we have ‘hate crime’ enshrined in law. The term was coined in the US in the 1980s. Sections 145 and 146 of the UK Criminal Justice Act 2003 require a court to consider whether a crime which is not specified by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 is racially or religiously aggravated, and to consider whether the victim perceives that their race, religion, sex (now called gender) or disability were involved. If they do, then it becomes a ‘hate crime’ and receives a more severe sentence.

Following the US example, psychological and ‘affective’ (a term from psychotherapy) disturbances, and repercussions on the victim’s identity and self-esteem are to be taken into account. The idea of violent crime was extended further into the realm of psychology, where there may be no evidence, when the Crown Prosecution Service guidance issued in August 2017 stated that online hate crimes should be treated as seriously as offences in person.

The government is also reviewing the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 to make it illegal to challenge men who self-identify as women, even without any medical procedure or living for two years as the opposite gender as the law currently requires. If the amendment goes through, anyone who challenges their belief will be committing a serious offence.

Courts are readily pre-empting the change. In September 2017 a woman of 62 was beaten to the ground at Speakers’ Corner by a trans-man aged 26. He accused her of being a ‘TERF’ (‘trans-exclusional radical feminist’, ie a feminist who opposes trans-men entering women’s spaces). In court the judge told the victim that she should call her attacker ‘she’. The trans-man was let off with a fine. Men now sport T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘I punch TERFS.’

These changes to the law mean it will soon be hard to keep track of what is really happening in our society. Just as statistics featuring different ethnic groups are often lumped together as if they represented one homogeneous whole, women are in danger of being over-represented in violent crime statistics as the police allow offenders to choose whether they are recorded as male or female rather than by their biological sex. This month the National Police Chiefs’ Council confirmed that when it comes to gender ‘We will accept the details that an individual provides and treat them accordingly.’

In a recent violent attack on London Transport in which a man was badly injured, the perpetrators were described by British Transport Police as ‘four women’. Film footage showed they were men dressed as women. The BTP says: ‘We recognise that people should be able to self-identify.’ 

In the light of these changes, now that a teacher may be sacked for ‘mis-gendering’ a child contrary to the 2010 Equality Act, very few people dare to practise free speech any more. Your words may get you into as much trouble as if you had stuck a knife in someone’s head.

How else do we explain why Khalid Masood, who murdered five people and injured 50 on Westminster Bridge last year, had previously been given only two years in prison after he slashed an unarmed man in the face for calling him a police informer? The reason was that the court heard that there had been ‘a racial element to the conversation’. 

I first observed this kind of fear of giving offence through words and the cultural paralysis it created when I visited Singapore in 1989. Friends there told me their society was divided between Christians, Chinese, and Malay Muslims. There was no free speech or press there, which was suffocating but necessary as it was so important that no group should ever lose face; to give offence might cause some kind of violent friction to break out. Besides, their culture did not welcome robust debate; they’d never had it and didn’t feel they needed it.

Rather patronisingly I felt glad that we didn’t live like that in Britain, forced to spend so much energy on balancing minorities with their different value systems. In our cohesive little country that kind of perpetual unease was alien to us, we could still laugh and speak our minds.

How long ago was that, thirty years? It feels more like three centuries and our freedom has slipped away in what seems like the blink of an eye.

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