Or, how I lost a measure of respect for the otherwise very respectable Elie Weisel. As Orac reports, Weisel recently participated in a debate in Canada against Salman Rushdie during which he argued that there should be an exception to freedom of speech to outlaw Holocaust denial.
Canada, of course, already has multiple exceptions to free speech based on the premise that “hate speech” should be coercively stamped out from society. And they have denied entry to the country to Holocaust deniers in the past. The National Post reports on the debate:
He said the sole exception should be Holocaust denial, which must be banned. And the sole exception to that exception, he said, is America, where he lives, and where free speech is regarded as such a fundamental part of life.
“I don’t want to touch the First Amendment,” he said.
This is quite confused. If he thinks that the sole exception to free speech should be Holocaust denial, then he certainly should want to touch the First Amendment. Logic does not change when one crosses lines on a map; people should either be free to deny the Holocaust or not be free to deny the Holocaust, period. The notion that they should be free in one place but in no other is logically untenable.
Of course, the very idea that one should not be allowed to make any false historical claim is patently absurd in the first place. Yes, I recognize Weisel’s compassionate motives. I know he means well. But the road to hell — and to losing our free speech rights — may well be paved with such good intentions. And good intentions do not erase the inherent injustice in punishing false opinions.
Making an exception for Holocaust denial sets a precedent that will then be used to justify outlawing other false historical claims. Once that exception is passed, how could one make a principled argument against outlawing denial of Stalin’s crimes? After all, he killed more than twice as many people as Hitler did. Or the crimes of Pol Pot. Or Milosevic.
Or — and here is an interesting hypothetical — how about the crimes of the United States, which has been responsible for its own fair share of genocide (and if you don’t believe me, ask the Cambodians or the Vietnamese)? Or the crimes of the KKK? Or how about those who downplay the horrors of slavery in America?
All of those forms of denialism are bad, of course. I have no problem attacking those who advocate such ideas and I do so gleefully and regularly. But once you give government the power to police false claims about history, where does one draw a principled line before one has reached, quite literally, a state not unlike Orwell’s 1984, where there is a single agreed upon history and no one may deviate from it?
No. Rushdie was absolutely right:
“It would be very inappropriate to think of any system of ideas as something that should be protected from debate,” Mr. Rushdie said. “This is in a way at the heart of the free-speech argument, that you should by all means protect individuals against discrimination by reason of whatever their belief system may be. But the beliefs themselves are open for debate, criticism, satire, and all kinds of disrespectful remarks.”