The price of free speech

It doesn’t take being a dad to know that the surest way to motivate people to do something is to tell them not to do it. If I want my 5-year-old son to get into a given drawer, all I have to do is warn him to stay out of it. The juxtaposition of the taboo and your visceral nature is always electrifying.

With this knowledge in mind, I was somewhat disappointed to read of how several PSU students and staff members reacted to the quiet visit of renowned jackass/Holocaust-denier David Irving last month.

There’s an old saying in Kentucky, suitably pithy, I hope: Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. Friends, as long as no harm is done, let idiots prove their idiocy. We’ll all have a good laugh at their expense and move on with our lives.

The same principle applied last year when No on Measure 36 campaigners barricaded the dyke-haters’ table. All that was accomplished was that the otherwise intelligent, well-intentioned folks who were for greater access to rights made asses of themselves. You can be sure the bright-eyed Bible-bigots grinned up their sleeves at the free promo.

However, another natural reaction is to be disgusted by the promulgation of hatred. Any person who glorifies Hitler or pretends the Holocaust never happened is perhaps rightfully greeted by a hail of spittle and rotten tomatoes.

One could make the argument that the presence of such a man constitutes an injury in and of itself, particularly to Jewish people, and as such should be prohibited. This is the paradigm in Canada, where “hate-speech” is an offense that warrants time in prison. But, like it or not, the American way is different, and to my mind preferable.

Our laws theoretically protect all speech, be it hateful, stupid or brilliant. As a nation, our philosophical framework says that if you protect one person’s right to speak, you must protect everyone’s right to speak – it’s the flip side of the truism that “if one person is oppressed, no one is free.” Yeah, it lands us the occasional neo-Nazi rally in Gabriel Park, not to mention Bill O’Reilly. But we must not forget that it also allows us access to Malcolm X, Hunter S. Thompson and Arundhati Roy.

David Irving is a nincompoop – the racist, half-assed shell of what once may have been a good mind. He denies the slaughter of millions of people, lionizes a vicious, megalomaniacal speed freak and does it all in a “charming English accent.”

I can see him in his withered armchair, seething with frustration at yet another rejection from some Rose of England, pissed at them all, pissed at the world. He’d show them yet.

This is how such twisted minds are formed, in the shadows cast around the edges of propriety, in the cracks and cobwebs of “right” society. Maybe if it hadn’t been forbidden, he could have seen the insanity, the brutal idiocy of Nazism. But as something verboten, it was immediately established as a natural antipode to the society against which he was rebelling.

This kind of perversion festers and flourishes like a bad cut covered by a cheap band-aid when left in the dark. The solution is to rip off the band-aid and let the light of reason shine down on the intellectual troglodytism that’s grown like a fungus in the light’s absence. The surest way to show people how stupid this stuff is is to let them see it for themselves. Conversely, tell them it’s off-limits and it becomes irresistibly sexy.

As such, the wash of righteous anger following Irving’s vapid little seminar, though perfectly understandable on an emotional level, was intellectually misguided.

If folks hadn’t reacted so strongly, Irving’s visit have come and gone with nary a ripple. Instead, he got free publicity and two redneck kids in Estacada got turned on to a new guru.

The bottom line is that a university exists to promote critical analysis of divergent viewpoints, and properly does so by exposing students to an eclectic mass of ideas. If you agree with everything you’re taught, you’re either not paying attention or missing the point. The ability to reasonably choose among several options is what it is to be an adult, but to do so you’ve got to have those options available. To lock some away is to promote your own cognitive atrophy.

The idea of prohibiting people like Irving from spewing their ideas, however vapidly sadistic or delusional they may be, runs counter to the very reason we’re all here. If you don’t like what David Irving is saying, don’t try to keep him from saying it, just don’t listen. After a few minutes of his bullshit, nobody else will, either.

Riggs Fulmer can be reached at [email protected]