This morning I was very struck by Steve’s latest post on the five year imprisonment of Ernst Zundel for having published his denial of the Holocaust. This event brings up a lot of awkward questions about the nature and the extent of free speech. I can feel the depths of my own discomfort at the thought of publications out there entitled Did Six Million Really Die? and The Hitler We Loved and Why. It seems shocking and somehow disgraceful that such unethical views can be expressed, as if it were an outrage against the uncommon sense, the thoughtful sense, that ought to be the basic goal of any society that dares to call itself civilised. And yet that gut reaction is equally a fine moment to consider why free speech is so essential, despite the atrocities it seems to welcome into the public arena.
I suppose the essential reason why all points of view, no matter how extreme and seemingly unreasonable, must be kept in circulation is in order to maintain transparency of thought. If an idea or interpretation is misleading, unethical or ill-considered, then the arena for debate is the only place where it can be satisfactorily disproved. If that idea goes underground it gains a strange, transgressive form of power; if we say it’s too dangerous a thought for us to think, then we celebrate it negatively; society is weakened and rendered fragile by its sheer existence. Whatever ugly, misshapen concepts mutate into the light, it is much better to look them squarely in the face and take them on. If we claim to believe in such a thing as truth, if we have faith in what might be termed ‘right’ then we have to allow truth and rightness to be challenged by all comers, and prove their value.
There’s an inherent problem with what has been called ‘woolly minded liberality’ that gets quite a lot of press these days. The idea is that if we allow all possible points of view, then we diminish the very distinction between what’s right and what’s wrong. If we accept everything, we begin to obliterate the notion of unacceptability. We become fearful of excluding anybody and so we end up with the worst kind of club that has no order, no direction, no sense of its own boundaries. Well, that’s as may be, but the alternative is to allow someone – and who would that be? – to judge who’s in and who’s out in relation to the validating cultural gaze. Let’s not make the mistakes of gender, race and class all over again; they were bad enough the first time around. The decision to exclude is itself always bound up with political motivations and complications that make such a decision far from innocent or well-intentioned. Listen, I don’t have all the answers here, but history has some pretty good lessons for us to learn, if only we would make the effort.
What I do know is that language lies with the same words it uses to tell the truth; I know that when we read we track our own unconscious desires every bit as much as we actually take in the words on the page; I know that the art of persuasion is often to be found in the form of a passage rather than its content. It’s never going to be easy to sort out what we want to believe, and what is ethically sound, and what benefits our society without causing terrible unforeseen cost. There are no simple right answers in the back of the book, but that’s just the deal we signed up for as human beings. All it means is that we have to keep all the debates open all the time. We have to keep trying to put the right words into the best order to express our points of view, and we have to think everything, if only in order to continually reassess the courage of our own convictions. If we believe that the truth will out, we have nothing to fear.