There is a secular inquisition that stigmatises free thinking.
Sociologist and social commentator
Each month, Frank Furedi will pick apart a really bad idea. This month he challenges ‘denial’, which he says has become part of a secular inquisition that stigmatises free thinking.
Every now and again, I find myself in the Campo di Fiori, my favourite public place in the city of Rome. I love the bustle of the open-air food market, the wonderful smells emanating from the restaurants and cafes, the chaos as young children vie with courting couples and pensioners for a bit of space. The square is dominated by the statue of Giordano Bruno, the heretic who, on 17 February 1600, was burned at the stake for denying the Immaculate Conception.
A pilgrimage to the Campo di Fiori can be a useful reminder of how the powers-that-be once dealt with free-thinking dissidents. Today, though, I no longer think only of the past when I look at the statue – for in the early years of the twenty-first century, Western societies have become prey to powerful illiberal, intolerant and anti-democratic influences. Those who question prevailing cultural orthodoxies are often treated as immoral, evil people and their arguments depicted as a form of secular heresy.
Many influential figures have a cavalier attitude to free speech, believing that ‘dangerous’ ideas should be repressed. Disbelief in today’s received wisdom is described as ‘Denial’, which is branded by some as a crime that must be punished. It began with Holocaust denial, before moving on to the denial of other genocides. Then came the condemnation of ‘AIDS denial’, followed by accusations of ‘climate change denial’. This targeting of denial has little to do with the specifics of the highly-charged emotional issues involved in discussions of the Holocaust or AIDS or pollution. Rather, it is driven by a wider mood of intolerance towards free thinking.
Free thinking always provokes the wrath of dogmatic moralisers. People devoted to experimentation and the exploration of new ideas, including philosophers and scientists, have traditionally faced being branded as heretics. Free thinkers cannot help but to question the prevailing dogma, which often involves a denial of the official version of the truth. Many of Europe’s leading thinkers have been persecuted for their heresy. The Jewish philosopher Spinoza was denounced as a heretic for his denial of revelation, and cast out of the synagogue. In 1633, Galileo was tried by the Roman Inquisition for his criticism of the Church’s cosmology. Threatened with death and torture, he was forced to renounce his beliefs, and was then sentenced to imprisonment for the rest of his life.
So what do you do if you have serious doubts about the received wisdom, but you know that your ideas will be denounced as heresy? The scientist Isaac Newton was faced with the dilemma of whether to assert, in public, his denial of the reality of a personal devil and demons. But he had a lot to lose if branded a heretic. Some of his colleagues who denied the Trinity were deprived of their academic positions. According to one account, Newton decided to keep his views private, because ‘heretics were seen as religiously subversive, socially dangerous and even morally debased’ (1). Others also tried to avoid the wrath of the heresy-hunters. Copernicus, who denied that the Earth was the centre of the universe, avoided punishment by postponing the publication of his book until his death. Most of his colleagues and other scientists followed suit, which meant that for almost a century Copernican astronomy was virtually silenced.
However, not everyone was prepared to play this game. Giordano Bruno was the most audacious denier of Church dogma and an advocate of Copernican theory. He refused to be silenced, instead publicly upholding Copernicus’ ideas. Even after seven years in the jail of the Roman Inquisition he refused to recant. He paid with his life. This was one heretic who was prepared to flaunt his heresy to the bitter end. ‘You are perchance more afraid to pronounce your judgement than I to hear it’, Bruno rounded on his persecutors at the last hearing of his trial (2).
In the Middle Ages, the crime of heresy was associated with the denial of one of the Catholic Church’s articles of truth. In theory, the Inquisition sought to get heretics to see the error of their ways and renounce their heresy. Only if they persisted in denying certain dogma would they be handed over to civil authorities for punishment – usually to be burned at the stake. When early humanist Michael Servetus, who was hunted by the Catholic Inquisition, fled to Protestant Geneva he was executed by the Calvinist authorities for his denial of the doctrines of the Trinity and original sin. Even in England, burning heretics at the stake continued after the Reformation. During the reign of James I, Bartholomew Legatt gained the attention of the Church of England for his denial of the Deity of Christ. He was declared an ‘obstinate, contumacious and incorrigible heretic’, and burned at the stake. His accomplice in the denial, Edward Wightnan, was executed on 11 April 1612 – the last heretic to be burned at the stake in England (3). In Scotland, too, denying the Trinity was a risky business. In 1697, Thomas Aikenhead was hanged for committing this blasphemy.
Today the old Inquisition stands discredited. The Catholic Church is increasingly defensive about its past record of heresy-hunting. Indeed, it is ironic that the Catholic Church, which systematically criminalised the act of denial in the past, is today accused of being ‘busily engaged in an Inquisition denial industry’. According to some of its secular Protestant critics, the Vatican’s selective recall of its past misbehaviour is an act of Inquisition Denial (4).
Heresy-hunting in the twenty-first century
Would-be Inquisitors can no longer rely on the power of the Church or the authority of religion to silence their opponents. Indeed, Western society seems incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong these days. We’re more comfortable with talking about values in the plural, rather than any single value that everyone can embrace; instead of the truth, society prefers to lecture about ‘truths’. On most issues, we are free to pick and choose our beliefs and affiliations. Educators tell university students – especially in the social sciences and humanities – that there’s no such thing as a right or wrong answer. Instead of enforcing a explicit moral code, the authorities seek to police behaviour through diffuse rhetoric that avoids dealing with difficult questions; they talk about ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ behaviour, for example.
Paradoxically, the absence of moral clarity today gives rise to an illiberal and intolerant climate. At a time when moralists find it difficult clearly to differentiate between right and wrong, they are forced to find some other way to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. So they seize examples of unambiguous evil – paedophilia, the Holocaust, pollution – in order to define potential moral transgression. Today’s heresy hunters strive to construct new taboos. The most ritualised and institutionalised taboo in Western society is to question the Holocaust, or to refuse to stand opposed to it. Numerous countries now have laws against Holocaust denial. In Austria, denying the Holocaust can lead to a 10-year prison sentence. Targeting Holocaust deniers allows politicians to occupy the moral high ground, which explains why, this month, German justice minister Brigitte Zypries called for a Europe-wide ban on Holocaust denial and the wearing of Nazi symbols.
The Holocaust has been transformed into an all-purpose moral metaphor adopted by a variety of special interest campaigns and crusades. This Holocaust brand has been co-opted for other experiences, too; we now hear debates about the African-American Holocaust, the Serbian Holocaust, the Bosnian Holocaust, the Rwandan Holocaust. Anti-abortionist crusaders protest about the ‘Holocaust of fetuses’ and animal rights activists denounce the ‘Holocaust of seals’ in Canada. Such manipulation of the Holocaust metaphor turns an historic tragedy into a caricature. Many US Jews were angered when an animal rights organisation launched a campaign that compared the slaughter of livestock to the murder of Jews in the Holocaust. A campaign exhibition, called ‘Holocaust on Your Plate’, juxtaposed images of people in concentration camps with pictures of animals in pens.
Many co-opt the Holocaust brand to win legitimacy and backing for their campaigns. And they insist that anyone who questions their version of events should be treated in a manner similar to those who deny the real Holocaust. ‘Do Armenian citizens of France not deserve the same protection as their Jewish compatriots?’, asked an advocate of criminalising the denial of the Armenian genocide of 1915 (5). In the past two decades, accusing someone of denial has become the twenty-first-century equivalent of labelling them a heretic. Those who deny the claims of fashionable campaigners and causes can expect to be censored and treated with intolerance. Following the precedent set by laws against Holocaust denial, the French National Assembly passed a law in October last year that could sentence to a year’s imprisonment anyone who denies the Armenian genocide.
The act of denial has been transformed into a generic evil. This is clear in the way that the stigmatisation of denial has leapt from the realm of historic controversies over genocides to other areas of debate. Denial has become a kind of free-floating blasphemy, which can attach itself to a variety of issues and problems. One environmentalist writer argues that the ‘language of “climate change”, “global warming”, “human impacts” and “adaptation” are themselves a form of denial familiar from other forms of human rights abuse’ (6). It seems that some people can no longer tell what a difference in opinion looks like – it’s all just ‘denial’.
The charge of denial has become a secular form of blasphemy. A book written by an author who is sceptical of today’s prevailing environmentalist wisdom was dismissed with the words: ‘The text employs the strategy of those who, for example, argue that gay men aren’t dying of AIDS, that Jews weren’t singled out by the Nazis for extermination, and so on.’ (7) This forced association of three highly charged issues – pollution, AIDS, the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews – shows how denial has become an all-purpose blasphemy.
Once denial has been stigmatised, there are demands for it to be censored. Consider the current attempts to stifle anyone who questions predictions of catastrophic climate change. Such sceptics are frequently branded ‘global warming deniers’, and their behaviour compared to that of anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers. Some advocate a policy of zero tolerance towards the climate change deniers. ‘I have very limited patience with those who deny human responsibility for upper-atmosphere pollution and ozone depletion’, says one moral crusader, before declaring: ‘There is no intellectual difference between the Lomborgians [those who adhere to the arguments of the sceptic Bjorn Lomborg] who steadfastly refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence of human-caused global warming from scientists of unquestioned reputation, and the neo-Nazi Holocaust deniers’ (8). The heretic is condemned because he has dared to question an authority that must never be questioned. Here, ‘overwhelming evidence’ serves as the equivalent of revealed religious truth, and those who question ‘scientists of unquestioned reputation’ – that is, the new priestly caste – are guilty of blasphemy. Such a conformist outlook can be found in the writings of sanctimonious British journalist, George Monbiot, who recently wrote: ‘Almost everywhere, climate change denial now looks as stupid and unacceptable as Holocaust denial.’ (9)
Heresy-hunters who charge their opponents with ‘ecological denial’ also warn that the ‘time for reason and reasonableness is running short’ (10). It seems that ecological denial, refusing to embrace the environmentalist world view, makes one complicit in a long list of ‘eco-crimes’. Some journalists argue that, like Holocaust deniers, those who refuse to accept the sacred narrative on global warming should simply be silenced in the media. ‘There comes a point in journalism where striving for balance becomes irresponsible’, argues CBS reporter Scott Pelley in justification of such a censorious orientation (11). From this illiberal standpoint, the media have a responsibility to silence global warming deniers by whatever means necessary.
Crusaders against denial don’t only wish to silence their opponents. In the true tradition of heresy-hunting, they also want to inflict punishment on those who deny the true faith. Anyone who denies the official consensus on the spread of AIDS can be castigated as an ‘AIDS denier’ – and ‘if Holocaust deniers deserve to be punished, so do Aids deniers’, argues one advocate of state repression: ‘It is high time African governments outlawed denial of the epidemic, and persecuted those who perpetuate misinformation about AIDS or in any way undermine efforts to tackle it.’ (12)
Illiberal opponents of ‘climate change deniers’ are demanding the same. One Australian journalist wrote last year that, as ‘David Irving is under arrest in Austria for Holocaust denial’, perhaps ‘there is a case for making climate change denial an offence’. Why? Because it is a ‘crime against humanity, after all’ (13). David Roberts, a journalist for the online magazine Grist, would like to see global warming deniers prosecuted like Nazi war criminals. In a vitriolic tone characteristic of dogmatic inquisitors he argued: ‘We should have war crimes trials for these bastards…some sort of climate Nuremberg.’ (14)
Denial, it seems, is the contemporary equivalent of what traditional religion used to classify as a sinful or dangerous idea. A long time ago, theocrats recognised that the authority of their belief system would be reinforced if they insisted that ‘God punishes disbelief’ (15). Moreover, blasphemers had to be punished because of the evil impact their blasphemy might have on others. Today’s inquisitors have adopted this approach, insisting that repressing arguments is ‘responsible behaviour’ since it protects people from ‘wrong arguments’ and disbelief. The transformation of denial into a taboo reflects the conformist dogmatism that is widespread today.
It’s worth recalling, as Arthur Versluis reminds us in his important book The New Inquisitions, that the term heresy derives from the Greek word hairen, which means ‘to choose’. ‘A “heretic”, then, is one who chooses, one who therefore exemplifies freedom of individual thought’, notes Versluis (16). And what connects the Inquisition with the activities of heresy-hunters today is ‘perhaps the most important of all: the “crime” in question is fundamentally a “crime” of thought.’ (17)
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word denial denotes the act of ‘asserting (of anything) to be untrue or untenable’. That is why denial has been inextricably linked to critical thought throughout the ages. Those who deny the official version of events have always faced hostility, and sometimes physical repression. Today, the word denial has become denuded of its radical and critical associations. Instead it is used as a synonym for refusing to acknowledge the truth – as in Holocaust Denial. In its colloquial and everyday usage, denial is seen as an act driven by base and dishonest motives. This draws on the psychoanalytical usage of the word. In psychoanalysis, denial means the suppression of painful and shameful recollections and experiences. In today’s therapy culture, people who express views that contradict our own are often told that they are ‘in denial’ (18). It has become a way of discrediting their viewpoint, or shutting them up.
Contemporary culture encourages the public disclosure of emotion – and it encourages the recognition and acknowledgement of others’ feelings (19). In these circumstances, denial has come to be seen as a negative emotional response. One account says denial represents the refusal to ‘recognise a disturbing or painful reality’ (20). So being in denial is the polar opposite of acknowledging pain and other uncomfortable facts. In an age that prides itself on public confessionalism, the charge of denial is a powerful expression of moral disapproval. People can be forgiven for doing drugs or drinking too much, so long as they go on a 12-step recovery programme and acknowledge their wrongdoing. Denial, on the other hand, is seen as a symptom of a destructive and dangerous personality; part of a disease that dooms the individual to behave self-destructively. According to one account, alcoholism is ‘the disease of denial’ and ‘denial is the life-blood of addiction’ (21). In popular culture, denial often serves as a marker for a sick mind. One self-help website informs the world that the ‘disease of denial kills more people every year than any other disease’. Apparently ‘it also maims, cripples, disables and incapacitates more people, and those close to them, than anything else’ (22).
When denial is then attached to a painful historical event like the Holocaust, it ceases to be merely self-destructive and apparently becomes a threat to others, too. Denial is not simply the psychological attribute of an individual – it has become a cultural force that threatens people’s wellbeing. In the domain of culture, denial has acquired powerful physical and existential attributes with apparently grave consequences for its victims. The criminalisation of denial is most developed in debates about genocide. According to Gregory Stanton, former president of Genocide Watch, denial represents the final stage in what he calls the ‘eight stages of genocide’, and moreover it is among the ‘surest indicators of further genocidal massacres’ (23). From this perspective, denial is not simply an act of speech; it is part of the physical act of extermination.
Therapy culture encourages people to interpret their emotional distress as being more painful and damaging than physical distress. And from this perspective, the pain caused by denial is portrayed as uniquely grave and hurtful. This is what Elie Wiesel meant when he characterised genocide denial as a ‘double killing’, because he believes it also murders the memory of the crime. This transformation of words and metaphors into weapons of mass destruction has also become part of the green alarmists’ strategy. Psychobabble about individuals in denial who cannot acknowledge the truth is cited as an explanation for why the public is not always in a state of panic about the impending environmental apocalypse. Indian journalist Mihir Shah has described it as the ‘environment denial syndrome’ (24). Others preach that ‘we can intellectually accept the evidence of climate change, but we find it extremely hard to accept our responsibility for a crime of such enormity’. In this case, the deniers are condemned for refusing to accept responsibility for an enormous crime. According to George Marshall, this shows that denial is a fundamentally immoral deed. ‘Indeed, the most powerful evidence of our denial is the failure to even recognise that there is a moral dimension with identifiable perpetrators and victims’, he argues (25).
Free speech is sacred
Is it ever legitimate to criminalise free speech? There’s little doubt that people who deny or attempt to minimise the significance of the Holocaust are motivated by the basest of motives. They often believe that the wrong side won the Second World War, and they wish to rewrite history in order to legitimise Nazism. They are sometimes obsessively anti-Semitic. There are some very good reasons for taking up cudgels against those who would write concentration camps and gas chambers out of history.
But there are also some very bad reasons for crusading against Holocaust denial. One is the idea that denial offends the sensibility of Jewish survivors. Free speech cannot be free speech if people do not enjoy the right to offend their fellow citizens. The demand that we acknowledge the pain and suffering of any particular group of victims has more to do with moral policing than a desire to affirm historical truths. One critic of Holocaust denial, the author DD Guttenplan, argues that the debate is not about the minutiae of historical detail. ‘To fail to acknowledge the pain felt by Holocaust survivors at the negation of their own experience – or to treat such pain as a particularly Jewish problem which need not trouble anyone else – is to deny our common humanity.’ (26) Perhaps. But turning history into a form of therapy designed to affirm the feelings of victims risks transforming a debate into a method of social engineering.
Some argue that Holocaust denial is a problem because, as more and more of the survivors die, there will be no one left to counter the claim that this terrible event was a myth. Others worry that young people surfing the net will inevitably encounter anti-Semitic websites and will lack the historical nous to see through the propaganda. Yet bureaucratic intervention and censorship cannot prevent such ideas from gaining people’s attention. Even from a narrow pragmatic perspective, the policing of speech does not work. In the age of the internet ideas cannot be banned out of existence.
However, free speech is not a matter of pragmatic convenience; it is a fundamental democratic principle. This was recognised by the French National Assembly in 1789 when it stated: ‘The free communication of thought and opinion is one of the most precious rights of man; every citizen may therefore speak, write and print freely.’ This right has become divisible, it seems. Western societies find it difficult to live according to their principles. Pragmatic politicians and legal theorists continually lecture us about how free speech is not an absolute right. Others claim that free speech is an overrated myth. We spend more time discussing how to curb free speech than we do extending it. And every time curbs are introduced on one form of speech, they serve as a prelude for censoring another form. Thus, the criminalisation of Holocaust denial has led to the repression of other denials of conventional wisdom.
It is particularly unfortunate that science has been mobilised to assist the policing of free thinking. Sections of the science establishment argue that the debate on global warming is finished, and that those who deny the so-called scientific consensus ought to be ostracised. But science cannot be legitimately used to close down debate. At its best, scientific research can provide us with evidence of important problems – but how society interprets that evidence is subject to controversy and debate, to political, moral and cultural factors. Every culture has something different to say about what is an acceptable level of risk, how much pain people should be expected to put up with, and about what is safe. Claims made about safe sex, child safety and environmental pollution are the product of cultural interpretation, as are the many threats to the world that apparently lie ahead. Science has some very important things to say about these problems that cannot and should not be ignored. But science does not provide the answers as to what a problem means for society, and how we should deal with it. That is why no subject should be treated as a taboo. It is also why science should not be used to end a discussion. In our search for meaning, we are entitled to argue and debate and freely express our views about everything. And in our conformist era, a healthy dose of disbelief is no bad thing.
One final point. Today’s mood of intolerance towards free speech resonates with public opinion. One of the most disturbing developments of past two decades is the loss of support for freedom of speech amongst the wider public. This was confirmed in the recently published British Social Attitudes Survey, which indicated that a larger section of the British public (64 per cent) support the right of people ‘not to be exposed to offensive views’ than support the right for people to ‘say what they think’ (54 per cent). The report concluded that the ‘general public is generally less convinced about civil liberties than they were 25 years ago’ (27). Only a small majority of the public takes free speech seriously. The survey also suggests that these illiberal attitudes pre-date the war on terrorism, and therefore cannot be blamed on the political atmosphere created post-9/11.
That fact alone underlines the scale of the challenge facing those of us who still take freedom and liberty seriously.
(1) Stephen Snobelen, ‘Isaac Newton, heretic: the stategies of Nicodemite’, BJHS, 1999, vol. 32, p.381.
(2) Cited in The Acceptance of Correct Ideas in Science, Immanuel Velikovsky, Accessed 3 January 2007
(3) Ian Atherton & David Como ‘The Burning of Edward Wightman: Puritanism, Prelacy and the Politics of Heresy in Early Modern England’, English Historical Review, vol. cxx,, December 2005.
(4) Arthur Noble ‘Purification of Memory’ – a Vatican Euphemism for the Whitewashing of History, European Institute of Protestant Studies, 17 April 2000, accessed 7 January 2007.
(5) Christopher Atamian ‘Talking turkey about Armenian history’, Beirut Daily Star, 3 November 2006.
(6) George Marshall ‘The Psychology of denial: our failure to act against climate change’, Ecologist, 22 September 2001.
(7) Stuart Pimm & Jeff Harvey ‘No need to worry about the future’, Nature, 8 November 2001
(8) See David Pollard, Global Warming And The Crime Of Denial, 7 March 2004
(9) George Monbiot, The threat is from those who accept climate change, not those who deny it, Guardian 21 September, 2006.
(10) David Orr ; ‘Armageddon Versus Extinction’, Conservation Biology, vol.19, no.2, p.291
(11) Cited in Warren Anderson & Dan Gainor (2006) Fire And Ice, Media Research Center, Alexandria, Va., p.5.
(12) See A Smyth ‘Denying the spread of Aids should be as harshly punished as refuting the Holocaust’, First Post; 27 December 2006.
(13) Margo Kingston, ‘Himalayan lakes disaster’, DailyBriefing, 21 November 2005.
(14) David Roberts The Denial Industry, Gristmill, 19 September, 2006,
(15) On this point see Steven Weinberg, A dealy certitude, Times Online, 17 January 2007
(16) Arthur Versluis (2006) ‘The New Inquisitions; Heretic-Hunting and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Totalitarianism’, Oxford University Press : Oxford, p.3.
(17) Arthur Versluis (2006) ‘The New Inquisitions; Heretic-Hunting and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Totalitarianism’, Oxford University Press : Oxford, p.7.
(18) See Frank Furedi (2004) ‘Therapy Culture; Cultivating Vulnerability In An Anxious Age’, Routledge : London, chapter 1.
(19) Furedi (2004) op.cit.
(20 Simon Cottee ‘The Cultural Denial: Islamic Terrorism and the Delinquent Left’, Journal of Human Rights, vol.4, 2005, p.119.
(22) Michael McCright, The Most deadly Disease of All
(23) Gregory Stanton, The Eight Stages of Genocide, 1998
(24) Mihir Shah ‘Environment denial syndrome’, The Hindu, 23 May 2006.
(25) George Marshall ‘The Psychology of denial: our failure to act against climate change’, Ecologist, 22 September 2001.
(26) DD Gutterplan ‘Should freedom of speech stop at Holocaust denial?’, Index for Free Expression, 27 January 2005.
(27) Mark Johnson & Conor Gearty ‘ Civil liberties and the challenge of terrorism’ in Park, A., Curtice, J., Thomson, K., Phillips, M and Johnson, M. (eds) 92007) British Social attitudes: the 23rd Report, London : Sage. P.168.