Tuesday, February 21, 2006

European Hypocrisy in Free Speech

The government of Austria yesterday sentenced British "historian" David Irving to 3 years in prison for the crime of "holocaust denial." In other words, he said and/or wrote things that the government of Austria said may not be said or written. Since 1999, 158 people have been convicted of violating these laws.

When I wrote about the Muslim cartoon riots, I argued that the only legitimate response to words is counter-words. I agree that some of the cartoons provided bigoted impressions of Islam. Those who drew the bigoted cartoons deserve some measure of contempt for their actions.

This principle suggests that counter-words are the only legitimate response to the claims that David Irving made. Responding to his words with violence (including the violence of state-imposed punishment) is no different that Muslims responding to the Mohammed cartoons with violence.

It would be perfectly legitimate to impugn Irving's scholarship. There would be good reason to make statements that somebody who so obviously blinds himself to certain truths is suffering from a defect of character that the emotional satisfaction of certain beliefs has drowned out reason. Yet, words alone do not provide a justification for violence.

The Cost of Censorship

Irving's conviction and sentencing took place in a context that makes it easy to identify some of the problems with censorship. No doubt, other nations are going to use Austria's censorship as justification for imposing other forms of censorship. By asserting to the world that censorship is permissible, Austria is helping to create a world in which more censorship takes place.

For example, some Muslims who are responding to the publication of the Danish cartoons will no doubt argue that it is unfair to protect the Jews from hate-speech inherent in denying the holocaust, while telling Muslims that they do not deserve comparable protection.

We can also expect to hear comparisons from China. Some officials there will no doubt claim that there is little to no difference between Austria's decision to impose sanctions on those who defend a political system it does not like, and China's decision to condemn the Tieneman Square demonstration. There is no difference between Austria censoring Nazi web sites, and China's decision to suppress web sites supporting political views it does not want discussed.

Those who wish to end censorship in other parts of the world will find that their arguments will be taken far more seriously if they were to express disapproval of censorship in their part of the world.

In an earlier blog entry, I wrote about a Nazi political rally in Toledo, Ohio where people responded with violence. I have said the same thing there that I have always said -- that though the Nazis were wrong, it is not permissible to respond to words with violence. It would be quite hypocritical to side with the rioters in Toledo, while standing opposed to the Cartoon rioters in the Middle East and condemning the Chinese Government for the censorship it imposes.

Those who defend censorship anywhere give moral weight to censorship around the globe.

The Benefits of Free Speech

The philosopher John Stuart Mill, in his essay "On Liberty", provided another argument for free speech.

If we make it illegal to say anything against a particular view, then that view would whither and lost the capacity to defend itself. To understand Mill's point, think of a boxer who never goes up against an opponent. He becomes weak and feeble. Eventually, the day will come when he will face that opponent, and he will not be able to do so.

In the case of conflicting ideas, the weakness of a particular truth against opposing ideas would be caused by the fact that people have forgotten to argue in its defense. Because they have not needed to defend a particular view (because opponents were being put in jail), they have lost the ability to do so. Then, when a relevantly similar view comes around, defenders find that they are incapable of standing up against it.

Mill argued that, when it comes to unpopular views, rather than censoring them, if we cannot find anybody who would defend them, it is in our interest to find somebody and set him up to be the Devil's advocate. By keeping the issue alive, and keeping the arguments against the offensive view in the public consciousness, each generation will continue to be informed as to why a particular opposing view is wrong and why no good person would adopt that view.

Actually, because of the Nazi attrocities there is reason to believe that we have less to fear from another Jewish holocaust as we do from sentiments that target some other group -- say, a Muslim or Arab holocaust. In effect, the law as written states that minimizing a holocaust against Jews is of sufficient concern to warrant a law, but a holocaust against some other group that the Nazis did not specifically target is not as important.

Extrapolating on Mill's suggestion, one way to protect all groups is to allow people to engage in holocaust denial if they wish and to meet them with an intense and consistent set of proclamations explaining why it (and any relevantly similar set of policies) are correctly regarded as evil.


It is easy to think of hypocrisy as some minor transgression that is not worthy of serious concern.

The problem with hypocrisy is that those who practice it magnify by several fold the wrongs of their own action. They commit a wrong that others then point to as precedent for similar wrongs. Those who speak of free speech while censoring views they do not want to hear establish a precedent that others then use to censor views that those others do not like.

Those who are not willing to defend and stand by the principle that it is never legitimate to respond to words with violence may some day discover themselves standing face to face with somebody who has learned from them that it is legitimate to respond to his words with violence.

It is the same principle by which people who do not condemn torture and those who support torture help to create a world in which more people end up being tortured. Those who do not demand that care be taken not to imprison and brutalize innocent people create a world where more innocent people are brutalized and imprisoned. Those who do not condemn leaders who start wars on false pretenses because they put themselves in a mindset where they saw in the intelligence reports only what they wanted to see run the risk that they will become the innocent victims of a war launched on false pretenses.

By their ability to magnify the wrongs that they do by several fold, hypocrites truly do a lot more harm than that which can be traced to their individual transgressions.


Anonymous said...

Why not stay on topic? This great article could be widespread and could really show people a very good point, but many would reject it because at the end, you suddenly talk about a tangently-related controversy. The messages "people who refuse to hear opposing views" and "the war was unjustified" are two good messages which should be made seperately. The first could then be digested, perhaps accepted, and then the second could use the first as justification for itself after the first has had time to sink in.

It's called "tact", why do people with well-written good points never seem to have it? :)

Anonymous said...

great post. people who deny the entire holocaust are clearly delusional. but there are actually some people who simply are debunking some myths about what took place in the holocaust. like the use of gas-chambers and burning mass amounts of people is debatable. there is no hard evidence for nazis turning people into soap either. a lot of those were derived from the paranoid assumptions of some of the survivors.

Either way, i agree completely with your assessment. Words for words. violence or gov. punishment is not acceptable.

Hume's Ghost said...

Heh. I quoted Mill at length in the post I did on this. Of course, I always find myself going back to Mill when it comes to putting forth arguments in defense of free speech.

In an ethics class I once took I had to participate in a "Should Hate Speech Be Allowed" discussion. I took the affirmative position.

During the debate an opposing debater said that Hilter used Martin Luther's anti-semetic speech to help justify his pogroms, and that this clearly illustrated why we should not allow hate speech.

My response was a question: did Nazi Germany allow free speech and open discussion? The problem wasn't liberty, but lack of it.

In America, the slaves were freed because of the inertia created by the abolitionist movement. It was open debate that turned public opinion against slavery.

Austria and the other Western European countries that have seen fit to criminalize thought should be ashamed.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I will concede that I have no special skills on the matter of tact. In college, I did not notice any courses in tact, and the courses I did take were primarily concerned with logic.

Recognizing that I have no special talent in this area, I conclude that it would be useless for me to put much effort into it. Instead, I write what I think is important and true. Hopefully, somebody more skilled in tact than I am can read what I write and find a more tactful way of presenting it to a larger audience.

I notice that you did not say that anything that I had written was wrong. That pleases me, because because I would rather tactlessly write that which is true, than tactfully promote a position that is false.