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A taboo of our times
July 18, 2007 7:30 AM
Holocaust and genocide denial is the most forceful taboo of our times. Numerous countries now have laws against Holocaust denial and recently an EU directive has made "publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivialising crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes" an offence punishable by law.
But might the institutionalisation of this taboo have dire consequences - not just for the cranks and charlatans who, often motivated by racism and bigotry, distort historical truth, but also for free, open and academic debate? Some believe that anti-denial legislation will stifle debates about history, as well as political protest and free thinking.
If the establishment of historical truths is left to the decree of politicians, EU bureaucrats and judges, then surely we will end up with legally-defined truths that one questions at one's peril. To permit the expression of views only if they have an official seal of approval looks like an affront to vigorous inquiries into history, and to freedom of expression.
The question of whether genocide denial should be an offence was addressed in a lively debate at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on Monday night. It was chaired by Francesca Klug, professorial research fellow at the London School of Economics' Centre for the Study of Human Rights. Expressing their opposition to the new EU directive were Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, and Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent (and a regular contributor to spiked, the online magazine I work for). David Cesarani, research professor in history at Royal Holloway College, spoke in favour of the legislation. He argued that there is a causal relation between speech, incitement and deeds.
Mr Cesarani said he is frustrated by "liberals with a small l" who "bury their heads in the sand" when it comes to acknowledging that unfettered freedom of expression can lead to "hate crimes" and historical distortion. He seemed to imply that soft liberals are somehow themselves "in denial" about the dangers of the Enlightenment ideal that was enshrined in the American Bill of Rights - freedom of expression - blinded as they are by their own reliance on the media.
I couldn't help thinking that perhaps Mr Cesarani has buried his own head in the sand. For a defence of free speech with no ifs or buts, regardless of whom it offends, is conspicuous by its absence in the mainstream media and public debates today. If "liberals with a small l" have gone soft on anything, it is on clampdowns on free speech, which they frequently justify as well-intentioned measures to protect vulnerable sections of society.
Today there is a growing tendency to divide society into those who cause offence, those who are easily offended, those who can be easily ignited by offensive words and those who need to police the public in order to minimise such speech. And this tendency has guided the EU directives against genocide denial.
When it comes to genocide denial, as distinct from Holocaust denial, it is in fact perfectly legitimate to question how helpful it is to label certain atrocities as "genocide", "crimes against humanity" or "war crimes", and to scrutinise the facts and figures of such atrocities. For example, some people protested against Nato's bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and questioned America and Britain's presentation of the Serbs' actions in Kosovo as a genocide. Might such protesters be found guilty of the crime of denial in the future? In order to establish historical truths, and to strongly counter those who distort it, everything needs to be up for debate.
Ms Lipstadt is one of the best-known warriors against Holocaust denial. She has meticulously exposed the lies, fabrications and bigotry of those who distort the truth about the Nazi atrocities. She was famously the successful defendant in the David Irving v Penguin and Lipstadt libel trial. Yet when, in 2006, Irving was imprisoned in Austria for comments he made in a speech in that country in 1989, she opposed the sentencing. Rather than silencing Holocaust deniers, Lipstadt said last night, legislation outlawing denial actually gives them unwarranted publicity and, ironically, turns them into free speech martyrs.
Furthermore, Holocaust denial laws feed into the very conspiracy theories heralded by the deniers: the despicable view that Jews control the political and judicial system and that they play on their victimhood and "historical guilt" to manipulate the system in their favour.
Ms Lipstadt argued that the only way to stand up to Holocaust deniers is to expose them for the liars they are - and in the process build a stronger case for truth - rather than shutting them up and locking them in a cell. Holocaust and genocide denial laws suggest that those of us who believe that Irving and his ilk are indeed vile charlatans don't have the confidence or the evidence to oppose them. We do, Lipstadt insisted.
Mr Furedi pointed out that the Holocaust has become a moral absolute for our relativist times; the historical event that every other atrocity, natural disaster or perceived injustice is measured against. The EU laws, he argued, encourage competitive claims-making to sanctify memory. So when they were first introduced, Poland, Slovenia and the Baltic states lobbied for the inclusion of a crime of denying, condoning or trivialising atrocities committed in the name of Joseph Stalin in the new law. When France criminalised denial of the Armenian genocide, Turkey threatened to criminalise denial of the French genocide in Algeria.
And it is not just states, but also various minority groups, environmentalist campaigners, animal rights activists and anti-abortion groups that fall back on terms such as "Holocaust" and "genocide" to give moral force to their causes. The overall effect, Mr Furedi argued, is that we lose sight of the historical context of the Holocaust and rather than preserving or honouring its memory, we obscure and denigrate it by turning it into a political prop.
Today, calling someone a "denier" has become a way of shutting down debate. But if we are denied the right to hear all sides of an argument, or to compare and contrast different events, we cannot make a coherent and forceful case for truth. And if we leave history in the hands of the powers-that-be, each of us runs the risk of putting ourselves in the docks - because considering the ever-widening definitions of offensiveness, who is to say that our own opinions won't one day, offend someone somewhere?
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