Technology with attitude

The perils of restricting speech


As all of you undoubtedly know by now, Iran is hosting a conference on the Holocaust. Billed as an academic inquiry, the thinly-veiled gathering of Holocaust deniers has drawn international criticism.

Let’s be clear here. Holocaust deniers rank right up there with flat-earthers as people not to be taken seriously. They’re a bit like creationists, pointing to bits and pieces here and there, or building elaborate theories based on the flimsiest conjectures, all while ignoring the towering mountains of evidence all around them.

But frankly I think the conference mostly demonstrates why countries like Germany and Austria are misguided when they make denying the Holocaust a crime.

Why? Because by banning discussion of the topic, they make racist, conspiratorial fools like David Duke look reasonable, even civic-minded. From his website:

In some Western nations, to diverge even slightly from Holocaust orthodoxy will cause an historian to face not only a loss of academic career but also imprisonment.

The main theme of the Holocaust Conference is that there must be freedom of speech on this subject as on all others. Free speech, inquiry and debate is the only way to learn the truth on any issue. Many Western governments have imprisoned many academics for simply expressing their historical opinions on the Holocaust.

For instance, world-renowned historian David Irving at this moment sits in a prison near Vienna, Austria for simply stating his historical opinion about Auschwitz in a lecture in Austria in 1989. German researcher/chemist Gemar Rudolf faces years of imprisonment for simply publishing a forensic analysis that challenged the authenticity of alleged Auschwitz gas chambers…

First, freedom of speech is a vital human right. It is the cornerstone of all other rights, because without freedom of speech no one has to the right to even freely know and learn of the abrogation of other rights affecting human freedom and survival. That is why the American founding fathers put freedom of speech, press and religion as the first and highest of the Bill of Rights.

Second, freedom of speech and debate are absolutely vital for the truth to prevail. If one side of any controversial issue can suppress the voice of opposition, we cannot arrive at the certainty of any truth. If academics and citizens can be career and monetarily blackmailed; if they can be threatened with firings, loss of income, or imprisonment from simply sincerely pursuing an historical inquiry and publishing it, how can the truth be fairly arrived at?

See? Duke is simply asking for the right to speak freely, and may the best idea win. How can you disagree with him? You can’t; he’s right. And by banning him you give him the opportunity not only to indulge his paranoid fantasies (“Look! Look! I’m being repressed!”) but to cloak himself in the language of light and freedom.

Never mind that he’s a lying loon. He also writes:

I and take no hard position on the historical accuracy of the Holocaust. Obviously, Jews, as well as other nationalities suffered great losses during the Second World War.

But at the conference in Iran:

On Monday, Mr. Duke asserted that the gas chambers in which millions of Jews perished did not actually exist. In prepared remarks published by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, he contended that the depiction of Jews as the “overwhelming victims of the Holocaust gave the moral high ground to the Allies as victors of the war, and allowed Jews to establish a state on the occupied land of Palestine.�

Hmmm… no hard position, except the gas chambers didn’t exist. Sure, Dave.

See what happened there? We gave Duke some light, and exposed him for a fraud. That’s how free speech works; while bad ideas are never actually banished, they lose their ability to influence the mainstream. Banning bad ideas merely gives bad ideas credibility and a certain outlaw panache.

I recognize that the Holocaust is a much more provocative and painful topic in Europe than it is here in the States. And I can even understand — though not agree with — the feeling that such talk needed to be controlled immediately after the war. But 60 years have passed; three generations have been born since then, more than enough time to get some historical distance on those dark days. Holocaust censorship now does more harm than good, and should be stopped.