Ignorance silenced

Last week I wrote that our voting rights constitute one of the cornerstones of our society. If the right to vote defines a democracy, then freedom of expression and speech informs it. A democracy cannot properly function without an educated populace and the only way to ensure this is by promoting and defending the free and open exchange of ideas.

But should the freedom of expression have limits? Is there a point beyond which it is irresponsible to say certain things, or to allow them to be said?

Clearly there are instances of freedom of expression leading to great harm, such as the Rwandan radio station RTLM, which broadcast hate speeches and inflammatory music to whip up violent mobs during the atrocities of April 1994. During that time, seven out of 10 of Rwanda’s Tutsis were slaughtered, often by mobs directed with brutal efficiency by broadcasts from RTLM. For their actions, the owner and co-founder of RTLM were each sentenced to life in prison on charges of genocide. I think we can all agree that freedom of speech does not constitute the freedom to direct armed, drunken mobs to specific addresses, exhorting them to murder all within.

So between “I think Republicans are better legislators that Democrats” and RTLM in 1994, there is a vast amount of room. In the U.S., freedom of speech tends to be limited by social pressure, the “court of public opinion,” rather than specific legal constraints (try standing in a room full of hippies and saying “I hate reggae,” and see what happens). Of course, there are laws against slander and libel, but these are denoted by speech or print that can be proven to be substantively false. What if it’s not a yes-or-no question? Many western countries respond to this dilemma by placing restrictions on the freedom of speech, specifically, in the prohibition of “hate speech.”

This issue looms large in the news today, seen against the backdrop of violent protests and riots across the Muslim world in response to the infamous Danish cartoon. This paper has entered into that particular fray by running a cartoon with a bomber Jesus – a typically American response (and one I agree with). But the debate has now been taken to Austria, where British historian and Holocaust-denier David Irving has been sentenced by a Viennese court to three years in prison for remarks made in 1989 denying the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz, among other gross historical inaccuracies.

Ten European countries and Israel have laws criminalizing the denial of the Holocaust and one can certainly understand why this is so. The Holocaust itself did not unfold fully formed, but was rather the result of a long, slippery slope of anti-Semitism, enraged nationalism and a host of other historical vectors. In barring the denial of the Holocaust, these countries seek to nip these trends in the bud, as it were, and it’s their right, of course, to make such laws. Certainly only a jackass would deny the murder of millions in Nazi concentration camps.

But should we let the jackasses bray?

It seems to me, impossibly removed from the events in Europe in the ’40s, that the best way to determine who’s a fool is to let him open his mouth and remove all doubt. To stifle the expression of opinion is another slippery slope (in my opinion), even when the opinion in question is brutally ignorant or discriminatory – so long as it remains an opinion, and not an action.

With regards to Irving’s sentence, the BBC quotes Karen Pollock, chief executive of the UK’s Holocaust Educational Trust, as saying “Holocaust denial is anti-Semitism dressed up as intellectual debate. It should be regarded and treated as such.” I don’t agree. Holocaust denial, though idiotic, needn’t necessarily be the child of anti-Semitism and to codify it as such is to arbitrarily quash the expression of divergent strains of thought. In contrast, Deborah Lipstadt, an author whom Irving unsuccessfully sued for libel because she labeled him a Holocaust denier, was against the verdict, saying “I am not happy when censorship wins, and I don’t believe in winning battles via censorship. The way of fighting Holocaust deniers is with history and with truth.”

Ms. Lipstadt has got it right. The only way to examine history, or determine truth, is through allowing the full gamut of intellectual inquiry. If we ban men like Irving from sharing their views, however ridiculous, we run the risk of ascribing to them an alluring patina of the forbidden, which then may be sought out and passed around like the Anarchist’s Cookbook or, say, vernacular translations of the Bible. Let embattled Harvard President Lawrence Summers ask if women show less aptitude than men in science. Won’t the numbers bear out his fallacy? Why are we scared of the debate? Let Rush Limbaugh spout bullshit maligning the greatest quarterback in NFL history, Donovan McNabb. It can cost him his job, but not land him in a jail cell. Let UC Boulder Prof. Ward Churchill call some 9/11 victims “little Eichmanns.” It’s hurtful, incredibly insensitive and maybe ill advised, but it’s his right.

They say that those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it. If we seek to stifle public debate or intellectual discourse, then how can we avoid such ignorance?