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Sean Gabb on the foolishness of censorship

Sean Gabb has written a fine piece called Defending the right to deny the Holocaust, stating why censorship undermines our ability to decide what is and is not true.

With regard to the holocaust, I have – broadly speaking – two options. I can believe that it did happen roughly as claimed. Or I can believe that it is a gigantic conspiracy of lies maintained since the 1940s in the face of all evidence. Since debate remains free in the English-speaking world, it should be obvious what I am to believe. I believe in the central fact of the holocaust. On the secondary issues mentioned above, where my authorities do not agree, I suspend judgement.

Take away the freedom to argue with or against these authorities, though, and my assurance that they are right must be weakened.

Read the whole thing.

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20 comments to Sean Gabb on the foolishness of censorship

  • dearieme

    He’s right. What more is there to say?

  • Nick M

    There is one thing to add. Crimilaising Holocaust denial gives ammunition to fascists, neo-nazis, Islamists and assorted other nutcases who can then accuse “The West” of “double-standards”.

  • matt

    Another problem with trying to censor Holocaust deniers is that it’s hard to differentiate between emerging hypotheses and racist propaganda. There are a lot of grey areas. For example:

    Is someone a Holocaust Denier for saying that 4 million died rather than 6?

    What about someone who says that the holocaust was politically rather than ethnically or religiously motivated?

  • Another problem with trying to censor Holocaust deniers is that it’s hard to differentiate between emerging hypotheses and racist propaganda.

    Indeed. I do not trust the state to tell me who the bad guys are, I want to be able to figure that out myself.

    That means leaving the vile ones, in all their forms, to set up their websites and publish their books. The more they publish, the easier it gets to see the real agenda.

  • This is fine if, in turn, the schools are not afraid to teach the Holocaust. Alas they appear to be in some areas of the UK due to fears of an adverse reaction from some muslims who are taught another version at their home and mosque.

    Sean is right – Let them rave on, so that others may know them mad. Daylight is nature’s antiseptic.

  • TimC, That’s disgusting. Schools scared to teach history in case our version of it offends someone. Sickening, if anything they should encourage the muslim children to put forward the version they’re taught at home, it would serve to demonstrate that everyone has a different view of history and no-one can claim to have it exactly right.
    If I were a history teacher, I would say that the more sources you have information from, the more accurate your picture of history can be. History shouldn’t be simply about bare facts, because there are no absolute truths in history. It should be taught as an excercise in deductive reasoning and evidence gathering.
    History is a three edged sword; my version, your version, and the truth.
    As to censorship, censorship of any sort is wrong, end of discussion. If some far right nutcase wants to hold a rally and publish racist literature he should be allowed to. Its the best way to show him up for what he really is. It also denies him the right to play the victim. “The government doesn’t want you to know this…” gives his spoutings more credibility. The more he gets to shout about the rights of the white man and the depravity of the jew, the more likely it is that some offended individual will give him the kicking he so rightly deserves. So let the facists and nazis spout their nonsense, supressing them just makes them worse.

  • Chris Harper (Counting Cats)

    While he may disagree with the details of the implementation, I am sure the good Doctor Goebbels would fully support the principle of a state mandated version of history.

  • matt

    Allow me to leave our present topic for a moment:

    This is fine if, in turn, the schools are not afraid to teach the Holocaust. Alas they appear to be in some areas of the UK due to fears of an adverse reaction from some muslims who are taught another version at their home and mosque.

    This is a fine example of why the task of educating our youth is too crucial to be left to dispassionate ‘social servants’ in the public sector.

    If government schools are the only game in town and their employees have ironclad job security that most government employees have, there is little incentive to stand up for truth or to do any of the other strenuous, risky things that actually expand young minds.

    I would certainly rather have my students educated by a teacher who used mandrill’s method, and I’d like to be able to make that choice.

  • Pa Annoyed

    I’m fully in agreement with Sean when it comes to opinionating, but what does he think about words that lead to actions?

    There are people who defend the publication of the recipes for poisons and explosives on free speech grounds. There are circumstances where a leader knows the mob is primed for a riot, and that a few selected accusations can set it off. There are secrets and libels and professional priviledge protecting people’s privacy. Are you free to explain a new technology or tactic – where even if the public debate decides it would be wrong to use it, it’s too late to keep quiet about it now?

    I first got interested in the debate over the free release of hard crypto – good enough to keep governments out. The consensus is firmly supportive of it (as am I), but even the strongest of advocates squirm a bit when it is used to protect the senders of anonymous death threats, paedophiles, terrorists, and organised crime. “A price worth paying” sounds really lame when confronted with the tragic results.

    Opinions that we can all argue with should be free, but do you draw a line anywhere when words and ideas have physical consequences?

  • Midwesterner

    but do you draw a line anywhere when words and ideas have physical consequences?

    That depends on the truth of the words. “Fire!” in a crowded theater when false, is a crime.

    But if the words are true and incendiary, as in covering up the Islamic terrorist nature of a crime to prevent public reaction, it is morally wrong, and probably wrong as a practical matter as well.

    Preventing the spread of truth because people may choose to act on it is extremely suspect in all cases. People must be held accountable for their own actions.

    By nature and logic, anyone preventing from knowing the truth is an enemy, either by neglect or intent. Our politicians are using powers intended to protect our secrets as a nation from our enemies, to protect their secrets as politicians from us.

    Furthermore, our politicians are using government powers of survelliance intended for use against our known enemies, to troll through our own citizens looking for possible threats to its own power.

  • Midwesterner

    but do you draw a line anywhere when words and ideas have physical consequences?

    Just an added thought. In many hardline Islamic states, a woman in western attire is one of the “words and ideas” that have “physical consequences”. As in rape.

  • Jacob

    If some far right nutcase wants to hold a rally and publish racist literature he should be allowed to.

    You all see things from an English-American (or Anglo-Saxon) perspective – were free speech is an old and powerful tradition, and nutcases are relatively rare. You can afford to ignore them, they are not a threat.

    It looks different when seen from Austria or Germany, (or continental Europe) where denying the Holocaust is a punishable crime. There, the nutcases won elections, comprised majorities of the population, and caused an enormous catastrophe, in the past. They feel vulnerable to these crazy ideologies, they fear them, a profound fear, which is understandable, and probably also justified, in view of their past. They feel the need to “do something” about it, and not sit back idly and let them grow, like they did under the Weimar republic.

    I think you, Anglo-Saxons, dismiss these fears too lightly, maybe you don’t fully grasp the horrors that others lived through. You also ignore cultural differences, differences of mentality. It’s not such a clear cut case of “free speech”.

    PA above expressed some doubts – he is right, and I added more doubts.

  • Sunfish

    You all see things from an English-American (or Anglo-Saxon) perspective – were free speech is an old and powerful tradition, and nutcases are relatively rare. You can afford to ignore them, they are not a threat.

    The nutcases aren’t that rare here. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the Ku Klux Klan, one of our (US) oldest domestic terrorist organizations. They were formed after our civil war, ostensibly to preserve southern heritage. This protection usually took the form of lynchings and other violent crimes. In the process, they managed to place their members in positions of power (judge, sheriff and district attorney being especially desired, for obvious reasons), thus virtually guaranteeing that they couldn’t be prosecuted.

    Eventually, they started killing the wrong people: Northerners whose next-of-kin could bitch to Congressmen, thus lighting a fire under Federal authorities not under their control.

    What broke their back more than anything, though, was publicity: Everyone knew that they existed. Everyone knew what they were. Everyone knew their supposed “secrets,” which made them look like idiots. It was prosecution and jails and being shot while resisting arrest that shut down a few of their terror cells. It was the humiliation of publicity that ended their ability to recruit and made them a cross between comic relief and a target for the general public. No recruiting and no fear = no power.

    By being afraid (afraid enough to decide that freedom doesn’t apply to them) of your (Continental) nutbars, you make them appear powerful. By letting them show themselves as the ignorant, unemployable, cranked-up punks they are, you destroy their power.

  • Pa Annoyed

    I agree that people should not “sit back idly and let them grow”, but the correct response is to ensure they are exposed and the arguments and evidence against them disseminated and discussed. Sean is right about that part – if the counter-argument is not well-known, or at least easily available, then the infection can still spread in the dark corners. You meet someone at a party, or on a blog, who has some amazing sounding ideas you’ve never heard before, and it all sounds so convincing, and you can’t see anything wrong with the idea, and of course when you see that the state bans those ideas by force rather than reason, you can’t help thinking…

    But you have to face the fact that people are stupid and ignorant and not interested in the facts. They are often quite attached to their insane ideas, and in many places the counter-arguments simply don’t get through. Reciprocity requires that you only let them speak if they’ll let you speak. If nobody’s listening, there’s no reason not to ban them.

    But while Holocaust denial certainly has consequences, it’s too easy an example. It’s consequences are far too fuzzy and indirect, and too easily reversible. It’s only when you say it to an audience that is going to go out and kill Jews as a result, that it becomes an issue. The Blood Libel would be a harder question.

    On the whole, there aren’t many things that I think people shouldn’t be allowed to say or publish. Holocaust denial isn’t even close.

  • Nick M

    Most Holocaust deniers seem to believe:

    1. The Holocaust didn’t happen, or was “accidental” or overblown.

    2. Jews exploit the “myth”, exagerate it or were behind the Holocaust in order to further the cause of Zionism.

    3. Adolf Hitler was a great man who was right to spot that Jews were evil and he was also a brilliant strategist.

    There is no way the sets of “facts” in 1,2 & 3 can be made to hang together without having a very strange way of thinking. It’s like wretling an inflatable mattress. You get one part down and the other part just expands out of control.

    And this sort of thing just keeps coming back like a haunted boomerang. Islamists say 9/11 was a good thing but the CIA/Mossad/Rotarians did it.

    Anyone who denies the Holocaust is an idiot*. I’ve seen Auschwitz and Dachau in the flesh. I’ve seen the German documentation and the testimony of survivors and liberators (British, American & Soviet). Alas, there are a lot of idiots.

    There are a lot of people who feel the more convoluted (and therefore the more “facts” that can be marshalled, relevant, irrelevant or spurious) the better as the theory.

    There are many people who will ignore the overwhelming weight of evidence and likelihood and treat Occam’s Razor as a disposable Gillette and build a towering heap of supposition on one minor gap in history.

    In short there are many people who will believe any old crap for any number of reasons and it isn’t possible to legislate against idiocy. It is only possible to innoculate yourself (and maybe others) through reason, knowledge and honest inquiry.

    I’ll add just one thing. There is a website called “catsthatlooklikehitler.com” which does exactly what it says in the URL. It has a feedback section. One of the negative comments criticised the owner for “making fun of a great strategist”. This guy was clearly a Neo-Nazi. Now, I ask ya, by what stretch was Hitler a Sun-Tzu? Doesn’t the fact that he um, lost, catastrophically, count against this description. Yet such is the mindset of these “true-believers” such questions as “Was it wise to simulataneously be at war with the USA, the British Empire and the Soviet Union?” do not even enter into it. They believe and the facts must be made to fit.

    *Or maliciously perverse, especially if they claim to be an “historian” rather than a Neo-Nazi demagogue. Well, the later would say that anyway, wouldn’t they?

  • Mandrill, yes it is disgusting that teachers feel they cannot teach something. They have capitulated/abdicated in the face of such moonbattery. If the role was of slavery and racism and some white kids were taught supremacist thoughts such that teaching the abolition of slavery caused outrage from parents and disruption from the kids in class, the authorities would be down on them like a shot.

    Matt is also right in the wretched monopoly on thought that is the UK “education” system. UKIP has the right approach IMHO – disband the LEAs and let schools run things and parents be free to vote with their (kids’) feet. Bodies like OFSTED (for all it’s faults) and the older Her Majestey’s Inspectorate have a place in the State, I feel, as they are part of the “weights and measures” function of the State.

  • We do not have unlimited time to indulge every contention that wafts in front of us to analysis from first principles. We often have to look not at a fact but on who is presenting us with the fact, and on that basis decide if it is worth our finite time subjecting whether or not what they say is true to rigorous analysis… or to just reject it out of hand because whilst what they saymay be true, their motives are so suspect that the odds are they are just full of shit.

    In the real world that is how we do things and rightly so. It does mean occasionally we may miss discovering the truth from an unlikely source but in the vast majority of instances, all we have done is not waste our valuable time listening to a disingenuous liar.

    That is why I delete Holocaust Denier comments from this blog, often without even bothering to read the whole comment. Is that “censorship”? Not really. My blog, my rules. I am all for the David Irvings of this world having their own blogs and not getting thrown in jail for propagating their bullshit. I just feel no need to help propagate their views on my blog at my expense.

  • Jacob

    Sunfish,
    Fashion changes with time. Dare to pronounce the N word in the US, citing the first ammendment, and see what happens to you. Seems in the US the N word is worse than Holocaust denial. Each culture has it’s own set of sensibilities.

  • Jacob, I have yet to see anyone get sent to jail for saying “nigger” in the USA. It is socially unacceptable, not illegal. Big difference.

  • Sunfish

    Jacob said:

    Fashion changes with time. Dare to pronounce the N word in the US, citing the first ammendment, and see what happens to you. Seems in the US the N word is worse than Holocaust denial. Each culture has it’s own set of sensibilities.

    Once again, Perry stole my thunder.

    If I use that word on duty and in uniform, odds are I’ll have a few days off without pay. That, to me, is perfectly reasonable. Any employer has the right to insist on certain standards of conduct from the employees, at least while the latter are on the clock.

    At the risk of spouting PC nonsense about thoughtcrime, I’m perfectly okay with people in my workplace being squeezed for talking like that. We’re expected to think and act impartially, since we (rightly or wrongly, see the reporter thread) have powers that the general public does not. That word, and the notions frequently behind it, indicate a person who might let race or other irrelevant nonsense guide his actions. I don’t want racists working with me.

    However, I would defy you to find a single place where “Uttering the N-word” is prohibited under the criminal code of any state. The closest I can find in my state is our Disorderly Conduct statute, item (1)(a). Even that would be a bitch to prosecute without being knocked down on First Amendment grounds. Absent an imminent threat of a breach of the peace, there would be no prosecution at all.

    Just for giggles, I looked at our “bias-motivated crimes” statute also. It’s really an unnecessary statute, as it criminalizes things that are already crimes (assault, criminal damage to property, and threats). Again, simply making an ass of oneself in public isn’t there.

    You can be ostracized and ridiculed for certain language, and rightly so. That’s not censorship or a ban. That’s just the rest of society exercising their right to have an opinion about foul language and the people who use it.