Sunday, February 19, 2006

Even the Devil deserves his say

It is not too much to require that what the wisest of mankind, those who are best entitled to trust their own judgment, find necessary to warrant their relying on it, should be submitted to by that miscellaneous collection of a few wise and many foolish individuals, called the public. The most intolerant of churches, the Roman Catholic Church, even at the canonization of a saint, admits, and listens patiently to, a "devil's advocate." The holiest of men, it appears, cannot be admitted to posthumous honours, until all that the devil could say against him is known and weighed. If even the Newtonian philosophy were not permitted to be questioned, mankind could not feel as complete assurance of its truth as they now do. The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded. If the challenge is not accepted, or is accepted and the attempt fails, we are far enough from certainty still; but we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of; we have neglected nothing that could give the truth a chance of reaching us: if the lists are kept open, we may hope that if there be a better truth, it will be found when the human mind is capable of receiving it; and in the meantime we may rely on having attained such approach to truth, as is possible in our own day. This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being, and this the sole way of attaining it.

Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being "pushed to an extreme;" not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case. Strange that they should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility, when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain. To call any proposition certain, while there is any one who would deny its certainty if permitted, but who is not permitted, is to assume that we ourselves, and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side.
- John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

David Irving is a Holocaust denier. He's likely a racist, his audience most certainly is, his work is error ridden, and in a few days he will be going on trial in Austria for his Holocaust denial, a crime in Austria that is punishable by up to ten years in prison.

This is unacceptable. Irving has not done anything other than put forth the argument that standard history of the Holocaust is wrong. Whatever Irving's motivations are, or whether or not he's right, there is no excuse for criminalizing thought. No law can bade a man to betray his conscience, yet that is exactly what a law prohibiting the denial of the Holocaust does. All knowledge must be subject to challenge or review, otherwise, it ceases to be knowledge.

Austria, and the rest of Western Europe where similar laws have been implemented, should take care to remember that it was not because hate speech was permitted that the Holocaust occurrred. It was because free speech was not. It was because voices were not allowed to speak out in defense of the victims of the Nazis. It was because the people were not allowed to hear evidence against the claims of the Nazis. The Nazis came to power because the German people did not notice the erosion of their liberty. The answer to a bad argument is not to ban it, but to refute it.

In the past few days we have seen what the desire to enforce orthodox beliefs can lead to. How can Western society ask the cartoon protestors to respect freedom of conscience while putting a man on trial for exercising his?

"It behoves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own." - Thomas Jefferson, letter to Benjamin Rush (1803)

UPDATE - Irving was sentenced to three years in prison. Incredible. In an effort meant to prevent something like the Holocaust from happening again, the government of Austria has acted like the Nazis whom this law is designed to stop. Whenever thought is criminalized, an injustice has been committed.

No comments: