February 20, 2006

Tolerating bullshit

The measure of a free society is how much bullshit it's willing to put up with before it figures that the bullshit is actually doing some tangible harm -- and not just feelings being hurt. In other words, even a free society will actively manage the proliferation of potentially harmful memes by reprimanding those who perpetuate them.

The trick, of course, is in figuring out which memes are actually causing 'tangible' harm, to whom, how, and to what degree. And then a proportionality check needs to be done to determine the harm being done in turn by imposing censorship, limiting freedoms and incarcerating individuals.

I can only assume that the Austrian court who recently jailed Holocaust denying British historian David Irving concluded that the perpetuation of the "Holocaust denying" meme could result in it getting out of hand, which could in turn lead to increased hate and violence against Jews. Of course, such a conclusion would be extremely hypothetical and presumptuous, making their decision all the more problematic. In an offhand way, they're essentially arguing that memes will trump rational thought, empiricism, and due process; they don't want to give the ignorant and those who are easily swayed the benefit of the doubt.

If, on the other hand, they jailed Irving because Holocaust denial is a hate crime unto itself, then they are seriously violating free speech provisions and they have come to the wrong verdict. You can't put a guy in jail for being a revisionist historian, no matter how pathetic he may be as an historian or as a person. As it happens, Holocaust deniers tend to be right-wing wackos, but being the former doesn't absolutely imply the latter. Consequently, one cannot be committed of a hate crime by this kind of memetic linkage. It's conceivable that a Holocaust denier could be a very nice guy and friend to all the Jews, but at the same time a seriously misguided and hapless historian.

Taking this even further, revisionist historians cannot be jailed simply due to the fact that they posit alternative interpretations to historical events. Historiographers know this too well; the study of historical interpretation, known as historiography, is an established, credible, and absolutely necessary aspect of historical study. Historians study previous historians -- this is important so that interpretative re-normalizations that have taken place over time can be identified, as well as problems of biases, insufficient data, sampling errors, and lack of linear perspective. Monotone history is unacceptable for the same reasons as censorship.

Moreover, the designation of the Holocaust as a taboo subject for re-interpretation is grossly arbitrary. In addition to the Holocaust, why not also Stalin's Great Terror? There are enough Stalinist apologists around to jail -- why not them, too? How about the history of Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China? Or how about those Christian apologists who are trying to distance the church from the Inquisition, the persecution of scientists, and all its other injustices over the centuries?

Essentially, the Austrian court, with all it's good intentions to protect the Jewish people, has committed the same crime against free speech as those Muslims who are now railing against the recent inflammatory cartoons depicting Mohammed. From the perspective of maintaining civil liberties and our right to free speech, the Holocaust is no more beyond re-interpretation than Islam is removed from insult.

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1 comment:

Hugh Bristic said...

You forgot criticism of Islam in your list of possibly punishable speech acts. Surely this is relevant given the cartoon controversy.

Perhaps it is different though. Denying the Holocaust, Stalin's purges, or the destruction caused by Mao's Cultural Revolution and the so-called Great Leap Forward would be lying and probably pernicious. Pointing out that the religion Mohammed founded is a terrible danger (even more than most faiths) and the fundamental root cause of most terrorism would be stating the obvious and risking your life to do so.