28 January 2007

How censorship disables democracy

In The Australian Brendan O'Neill, deputy editor of sp!ked, has written a good piece about how passing laws against Holocaust denial, which has already happened in several countries and is being proposed in several others, is counterproductive.

However much we might detest Holocaust denial, it's a big mistake to outlaw it. The only beneficiaries will be the deniers. Overnight these handfuls of wacky historians and far-Right losers will be granted the moral authority of martyrdom. Forced underground, they will become more convinced than ever that their arguments (or, rather, lies) represent a truth so frightening that the authorities cannot handle it. Blanket bans on Holocaust denial will only strengthen the deniers, while gravely undermining free speech and rational debate.
In calling for European-wide censure of Holocaust denial, Germany is using a sledgehammer to crack a bunch of nutcases. It is also attacking the very basis of our democratic right to free speech. Support for freedom of speech relies on the belief that adults are ultimately capable of deciding what to think for themselves: that we are rational beings possessed of free will, and very often good sense, who can distinguish a good argument from a rotten, rancid, racist one. The argument for banning Holocaust denial takes the opposite starting point: that people must be considered incapable of resisting even this ludicrous idea, and that we must be protected from evil words by the caring authorities.

Restricting speech on the grounds that it might inflame hatred and even stir up violence is an insult to us, the public. Such an approach calls into question the existence of free will itself; it treats us as unthinking automatons who must be protected from our own worst instincts, from our latent hatred and propensity to violence, by the blue pen of the gracious censor. You, like me, may have no desire to hear Irving and the rest spread lies about the Holocaust, but we should recognise that the proposed ban on Holocaust denial is premised on the idea that we're fickle and easily influenced and in need of guidance from the powers-that-be to make the right decisions and believe the right things. Such a sentiment attacks the very core of freedom and democracy.
Holocaust denial cannot be defeated by brute censorship. Suppressing lies only allows them to fester and spread. It is only in the loud and rowdy court of public opinion where we can disprove and dismantle the deniers' lies once and for all, and let historical truth win out.

For more by the author see his website.

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