current affairs

In defence of free speech and the Holocaust deniers

Written by Nigel Simpkins

In case you were wondering, no, this isn’t just a provocative headline. I really am going to defend the people who argue the Holocaust was fabricated or provoked by European Jews.

In case you were wondering, no, this isn’t just a provocative headline. I really am going to defend the people who argue the Holocaust was fabricated or provoked by European Jews. Or rather, I am in fact going to defend their right to do so freely. I disagree profoundly with them and indeed with many other people in society. I do not, however, want to see any of them censored.

In recent months I have been concerned by the tendency for ‘offence’ to become a weapon against people with whom one disagrees. This was an issue several years ago with the case of David Irving, a Holocaust-denying historian who was jailed in Austria for his beliefs. In that case it might seem somehow more right that he was censored, but I hold an absolute stance on this matter. More recently, in the gay marriage debate, both sides demonise the other and claim that they have the right to feel offended. Julie Burchill’s article on fashion and transsexuals prompted a raft of angry or offended letters and responding articles in various papers, including calls for her resignation, which might have played a part in the article being removed from the web.

Most recently it has been the case of David Ward MP, who remarked on his blog in the run up to Holocaust Memorial Day that:

“… I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new state of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.”

Now, this is not Holocaust denial, I accept, but let us group all of these things together rather crudely as opinions that are considered unsavoury by some.

Now, let us consider why we should accept their expression nonetheless. In my opinion, every time we deny someone the right to freedom of expression or speech we are making a rod for our own backs. When we next have an opinion that is unsavoury, we want to be able to utter it freely. This debate has grown particularly strong in the UK in recent years, and only recently been resolved, because for a long time a section in the Public Order Act made saying something that is ‘insulting’ an arrestable offence. Thankfully this will soon be rectified and we can be free once again. If we want to be able to criticise the events in Syria, Libya, Mali or anywhere else, we have to concede that same privilege to everyone else.

This problem has been addressed in various ways by numerous historical figures. We might justify freedom using J.S. Mill’s ‘Harm Principle’ from On Liberty, one of his most famous creations, the corollary of which is that state intervention in freedom of speech and thought is only warranted when those views might cause harm to others, and even then, when less harm will come from an intervention than from non-intervention. Alternatively we could say that in hearing arguments against our position, whether we consider them genuine or fatuous, we reinforce our own beliefs, as we remember and re-examine why we hold them. Milton’s Areopagitica is another text I must reference here (The Areopagus being the hill in Ancient Athens of free speech, judgement, and thought).

We should not fear the expression of wrong ideas, because even wrong ideas hold a grain of truth, which might be beneficial, and of course truth will win out. As Milton put it, “…who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter.” If the opposition really are wrong, then that will become apparent.

So hold back, ye braying hounds of censorship, and hold fast, ye pillars of free speech. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous judgement proscribing the distribution of leaflets against the draft in World War One was, as legend has it, defending against “a cry of fire in a crowded theatre.” No man could expect freedom of speech to protect him in doing so, he wrote, in fact terming it a ‘false cry of fire’ to indicate that he was preventing that freedom of speech which could do harm. I likewise claim the right to freedom of speech without incitement to violence or other evil, and I offer it unconditionally to others.

So call me (falsely) a Holocaust denier, but I won’t be suppressed. Holocaust denial, articles criticising transsexuals or homosexuality or offending the memory of the Holocaust are not a false cry of fire, they are only opinions. Much as we find them distasteful, they should not be suppressed and their promulgators should not be censored in any way or punished, save at the ballot box, in the newsagent, and in the field of free and fair debate.

What do you think? Do you agree? Have your say in the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter.