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Why it’s wrong to censor Holocaust deniers

History, including the history of the Holocaust, should be determined in open, public debate, not in the courts.

Angus Kennedy

Topics Politics

On 20 October, Angus Kennedy took part in a debate titled ‘Genocide denial: should we defend the right to speak evil?’, at the Battle of Ideas in London. An edited version of his opening comments is published below.

I want to talk about genocide affirmers rather than genocide deniers – and I’ll try to explain what I mean by that.

Firstly, I think that genocide denial has always been something of a shrill brand rather a real force in the world. It had its hey day in 1970s France with Robert Faurisson, a rather lame literary critic in the south of France who denied the Holocaust, and was taken apart by, among other people, the French classicist and structuralist Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who was also a left-winger. Vidal-Naquet did not call for the legal prohibition of denial; instead he argued that contempt is a much more effective weapon. Similarly, Deborah Lipstadt, the author of History on Trial: My Day In Court With David Irving (2005), rails against genocide denial but is still opposed to criminalising it, shuddering at the thought ‘that politicians might be given the power to legislate on history’. I think that is a useful point to bear in mind.

The decision of whether or not to criminalise genocide denial is, in a way, the key free speech issue, the fundamental taboo. In that sense, it’s interesting that there continue to be movements by governments to make genocide denial illegal. France will probably try to push through the genocide denial law, despite it being overturned by its constitutional court, and argue for restrictions on what the French can and cannot say.

To make it clear, I’m completely opposed to criminalisation of speech or, to be more accurate, criminalisation of an idea – because that’s what this is. This is governments saying that a certain idea – genocide denial – should be illegal. I don’t think history is a matter for judges; it’s a matter for historians. I think that the completely unrestricted and absolute right to free speech is simply the best method we’ve got for getting closer to historical truth with a capital ‘T’. We should not be criminalising ideas; we should never be pragmatic about where we extend tolerance – it is a principal to be defended at all costs.

I am, however, concerned about the rapid expansion of the category of what you might call ‘deniers’. We started with Holocaust deniers – now there are genocide deniers, climate-change deniers and rape deniers. I think this is the case because there’s a growing set of people who are affirmers. The deniers are, if you like, the flipside of the intolerance of the affirmers, who are intolerant of those who do not take the orthodox position on rape, climate change, genocide or the Holocaust. When you brand somebody a denier you refuse to discuss the issue. I’m not suggesting that bringing David Irving up here on the panel would be in any way illuminating – trust me, it would not – but I am saying that society should be free to discuss, in this case, the Holocaust in a completely unrestricted way. No idea should not be off the table.

It’s only when society is fearful, perhaps of the consequences of examining ideas, that we no longer find any room for those who express doubt or scepticism. I think it’s in that climate that we see more and more affirmers. These people make affirming what they consider to be the truth a virtue, and wear it like a moral badge on their sleeve. They do so to such an extent, that you see people in French protests against Holocaust deniers holding up placards saying ‘silence is denial’, suggesting that those of us who do not openly rail against deniers are somehow complicit. In many ways, the hatred afforded the figure of the denier is not really in relationship to what it is they deny. What it is they deny is not really the issue. Rather, it’s the failure to conform with the orthodoxy that is found so abhorrent and dangerous by affirmers: it is thinking differently, in and of itself, that is potentially going to be criminalised here.

That said, I have a deeper problem with the way affirmers use memory. When you affirm genocide in the way I’m trying to outline, you start to treat the memory of events like the Holocaust as something sacred on the one hand, and as something useful on the other. I think this sacralisation of genocide is wrong because it puts it beyond question. It makes it a ‘transcendent moral truth’, as philosopher Slavoj Žižek has put it – something that you’re never allowed to question. As for making genocide useful, I think that using the memory of genocide as an argument for something else – a moral lesson, for instance – is very dangerous. We should remember that memory is highly malleable, open to exploitation, propaganda, censorship, tendentious selectivity, or even just wilful emphasis.

Second-generation holocaust survivor Eva Hoffman wrote a book called After Such Knowledge, which argued precisely this point. She points out that the use of memory in this way can create a very profound cynicism towards the actual facts of history. To give you an example of what Hoffman is talking about: the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is often uninterested in the facts and instead focuses on telling you the story of an individual survivor; it wants to make you feel people’s individual pain, rather than give you the whole story.

In this, there is a danger that genocide becomes part of a huge ceremonial industry, one in which we chant ‘never again’ as if casting a spell. But by defining what’s good in our society in relation to the absence of genocide, we hijack the deaths of six million people, and use the Holocaust as a moral allegory that tells us how to behave today. If that’s the case then there’s something wrong. When we try to silence genocide deniers, we do so because they undermine this moral allegory that we hold so dear. It’s almost as if we have forgotten the distinction between what we say and what is. Words are not spells, hate speech is not lethal, hate crimes do not lead to genocide; we must, in the tradition of the Enlightenment, maintain a clear and rational understanding of this.

I think we are facing a clear and present danger from this culture of affirmation as well as the accompanying culture of denunciation. For example, the self-proclaimed ‘free-speech wing of the free-speech party’ – or as it’s otherwise known, the social networking site Twitter – only fosters a very brazen culture of denunciation today, where you can anonymously denounce those with the opinions you find offensive. Recently, the twitter hashtag ‘#unbonjuif’ (‘a good jew’) was shut down in France and in Germany, a nation was denied access to read certain tweets from a neo-Nazi group because people might find them offensive.

If denial is a form of scepticism, then we need more of it. In the story of the emperor’s new clothes, the boy who pointed out the emperor’s nakedness was a denier, wasn’t he?

Angus Kennedy is head of external relations at the Institute of Ideas and convenor of The Academy.

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Topics Politics

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