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Jun 16 2010

I take an unpopular stance on Holocaust denial

I know that some of my readers are Jewish. I hope that I have established my bona fides in your eyes that I am not an anti-Semite, nor will I rush to defend Jews when they are wrong. I see Judaism and Jewish people in the same way I see all religions and religious people – not deserving of sainthood, but definitely not deserving of hatred and violence. I am not a Holocaust denier, I do not think the Holocaust was a cover-up or a lie – there are mountains of evidence, and I am satisfied that the truth is more-or-less represented accurately in the current narrative. I am aware that there is a community of deniers out in the world, and I try to stay as far away from them as possible.

Elie Weisel wants to make it a crime to deny the Holocaust:

Wiesel did disagree with (author Salman) Rushdie over whether Holocaust denial should be a crime, saying it should be outlawed everywhere except in the United States. That’s because the First Amendment in the U.S. guaranteeing freedom of expression is too important, Wiesel said. Rushdie, on the other hand, said prosecuting Holocaust deniers simply extended them a platform. The author said freedom of speech and the value of human rights were both topics that could not be discussed enough.

I agree with Rushdie, although for slightly different reasons. Many European countries have made it a crime to deny the Holocaust. My concern is not simply that making it a crime makes martyrs out of those who are arrested (although that will almost certainly be the case), my concern is that outlawing any speech is cause for pause. The unbelievably inconvenient thing about free speech is that you can’t pick and choose which speech should be free. It’s either free, or it isn’t free. If we’re not going to have free speech, then we need to establish reasonable criteria to infringe – we can’t simply arbitrarily decide that some things can be discussed and some can’t, no matter how horrible they might be. One of my favourite bloggers talked about this a couple weeks ago, and you can find me sprinkled all over the comments section. Orac had, among other things, this to say:

Quite frankly, Wiesel’s advocacy of a ban on Holocaust denial while championing free speech to criticize Islam doesn’t just look hypocritical. From my perspective, it is hypocritical. Why this one exception to free speech for Holocaust denial bans? Why not other exceptions to free speech–such as for criticizing religion or racist hate speech against others besides Jews?

At what point does some speech become “incorrect”, but similar speech is okay? Are blasphemy laws justified because it strikes at the very core of some people’s belief systems? Should all anti-religious speech be off-limits, even if it’s to criticize specific abhorrent practices that are done in the name of religion?

The other side of it, and perhaps the more compelling argument, is that banning speech doesn’t make the problem go away. It simply drives it underground, where it is allowed to grow and metastasize until it erupts and hurts people. We’ve seen a number of examples of that on this blog alone – where taking away the ability to talk about something only serves to make it worse. If the goal of the law is to eliminate the hate, then it must be done similarly to using surgery or radiation to treat a tumour – sometimes things have to get worse in order for them to get better. Once the hate is out in the open air, we can counter it with facts and demolish its support, finally putting it completely to rest. Or, as Orac puts it:

Let them have their free speech. Then bury them with refutations and ridicule.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    Brett Hetherington

    There is a significant difference between denying something happened (eg. the Holocaust) and inciting extreme hatred and violence against a group of people who have no real choice about who or what they are.

    To me, if someone (like David Irving, or the Spanish bookseller at this link: http://www.bretthetherington.net/Modules/Blog/Pages/BlogEntry.aspx?BlogEntryId=527) wants to ignore all the clear evidence of the Holocaust then that is their mistake.

    But it is society’s mistake to not have laws which make it a crime to publicly say, for example “Let’s go out and kill as many niggers and Jews as we can because they are all inferior.”

    Absolutely, bury them with refutations and ridicule, as you say, but we have to also make sure that legal protection is given to all people so that we can all live without racial/ethnic vilification. Free speech should not be absolute, in my view.

  2. 2
    crommunist

    I agree that there need to be specific rules against incitement of violence, but that isn’t speech, that’s not the discussion of different ideas to determine the value of opposing positions. That’s incitement of violence. That’s the direct advocacy of injury and/or murder. Essentially, it’s tantamount to committing the violence, minus the scintilla of courage it takes to actually throw a fist.

    All people should have protection against threats of physical violence, regardless of their race or religion or whatever. I can’t imagine a society that can function if it allows people to advocate the murder of its citizens. I am not sure if that’s where you would draw the line, but I am totally comfortable supporting restrictions on violence. What I am not okay with is saying that some kinds of violence are worse than others because we don’t like the opinions of the violent, not based on their actions.

  3. 3
    Scary Fundamentalist

    Wow, Crom, I’m almost agreeing with you here.

    The problem with restrictions to hate speech is that they require a subjective standard by which to measure how extreme one’s hatred is. Not only does this infringe upon freedom of speech, but also freedom of conscience. The criminal code took a more objective approach when it limited prosecutions only to speech that advocates violence (threats), not hatred. The Human Rights Codes, on the other hand, give the Tribunals the ability to move the hate goalposts wherever they want to prohibit speech they don’t like.

    One part I disagree with you on is your suggestion that threatening to throw a fist is tantamount to committing the violence. You may be able to argue that empty threats may constitute a violation of one’s right to security of the person, but it’s a whole ‘nother ballgame once the punch is thrown.

  4. 4
    crommunist

    Hahaha, I think if we threw everything down on the table, you’d find we agree about quite a number of things.

    I don’t know that the threat is the same as the action, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t said that. There is a difference between saying “I don’t like those people” (or even “I HATE those people”) and “Those people should be killed”. Specifically advocating violence or discrimination against a person or a group of people is, as far as I am concerned, philosophically comparable to committing the deed yourself. It is both injurious to personal liberty and the conduct of a lawful society.

    The trick to justifying restrictions on hate speech is to demonstrate the connection between hate speech and violence, and I am not satisfied that this has been accomplished. I too am concerned that goalposts can be shifted, especially as an outspoken anti-theist. I don’t want to wake up one day to the police telling me that I have been convicted of “hate speech” because I point out the flaws in religious ‘reasoning’. Just because you might hate what I said doesn’t make it hate speech.

    Thanks for commenting.

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