Irving at the Lit & Deb: A reply to Prof Schabas

The Holocaust History Museum
Hall of Names, Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Memorial, JerusalemSince writing my previous post, I have read (hat tip: Ninth Level Ireland) a trenchant statement of the opposite view by Prof William Schabas, Director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway. His argument is twofold. First, he refers to the EU Framework Decision on racism and xenophobia (pdf). Second, he argues that, whatever about that Decision, Ivring should not as a matter of principle be granted a prestigious platform by the Lit & Deb. He illustrates this second point with a rhetorical flourish:

There are also cranks who believe that the earth is flat, but we don’t invite them to deliver seminars in the geography department.

And he concludes that

… any reasonable reading of the EU Framework Decision should lead to the conclusion that he cannot be welcome in Ireland, or at the University.

First, the reference to the Framework Decision is a red herring – its langauge is quite flexible in precisely what the Member States are obliged to do; even in Prof Schabas’s description, Member States can decide to punish only conduct which is carried out in a manner likely to disturb public order, and whatever may be said about Iriving, it is not his words but those protesting against him that have often been likely to disturb public order. More generally, for those who have read the previous post, it will come as no surprise to learn that I disagree in principle with the Framework Decision. I’ve already said so on this blog (see here, here, and here). Conscious that today is Memorial Day, my view is that the best way to ensure that we never forget the Holocuast is to debate it, not to shroud it in silence. With Jonathan Sacks, writing in today’s Times, I believe that all faiths must stand together against hatred, but I also believe that the best way to do so is to meet the hatred head on, not to censor it.

This in turn leads to Prof Schabas’s second objection, that Irving should not be a given a platform. I accept – as Pádraig Reidy (news editor of Index on Censorship, and a commentator with whom I usually find myself in agreement) has argued – that there a great deal of difference between censoring Irving and not inviting him. But if the best way to deal with him is to confront him, then the Lit & Deb is exactly the right place to debate and debunk Iriving’s odious ideas. History is full of examples where truth has been legislated, and proof has been imposed and accepted, simply on the basis of authority rather than rational argument on the basis of the evidence. One example will suffice: the Catholic Church sought to suppress Galileo’s heliocentric view of the solar system,* an attempt which in retrospect we find risible. Now, I’m not saying that Irving is a Galileo, or that his views in retrospect will come to be vindicated. Rather, I’m saying that if we allow the idea of legislating truth in the case of Irving, if we accept that proof can be imposed simply on the basis of authority, then we can legislate truth and impose proof where-ever we like, simply because we are offended by an idea. If an idea is offensive, or ill-founded, the best response is to demonstrate this, if not to the misguided speaker, then at least to everyone else. We are never going to change Irving’s mind; but with debate, we can prevent others from coming to the same conclusions.

At the time of the persecution of Galileo, not only did the Church teach that the sun moved around the earth, it was also widely believed that the earth was flat;* to the medieval mind, these truths were obvious, even ineffable. To our modern eyes, with the benefit of evidence, we quite rightly reject these falsities. But if someone were to seek to reassert the old views, then we should indeed invite them to deliver seminars in the geography department, not because they are right, but because in contending with them and relying on the evidence to demonstrate that they are wrong, we improve the quality of our scientific debate. In this year of the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin, this principle is all the more crucial: the best way to answer creationist claims is not by censoring them, but by marshalling the evidence for natural selection.

In making our arguments, Prof Schabas and I are exercising the precious democractic right to freedom of expression; we must not deny Irving the same democratic freedom simply because we find his views odious; else how would we meet an argument that we in turn should be censored because someone in authority disagrees with us!

* Update: There is much discussion in the comments on the validity of these examples, and that is as it should be. It demonstrates the power of debate and discussion. I accept the points made in the comments; if I were writing this post again, I would not have used them in this way; and when I’m discussing these kinds of issues again, I’ll certainly use different examples. However, as explained in the comments, I’ve chosen not to amend the text. As to Galileo, there was a trial, even if the issue wasn’t as black and white as is popularly believed; and as to a supposed medieval belief in a flat earth, I was simply picking up and running with Prof Schabas’s point. Either way, the examples build towards a point about Irving’s views, and I stand by the basic point that we cannot legislate truth. We should not even try, as the attempt is as likely be misconceived as it is to be misconstrued, as the commentators argue that the trial of Galileo has been. Instead, we should debate such issues, as the commentators have done in the comments below, and – at least in relation to Galileo and the flat earth – the discussion has resulted in a development of my views. This is what freedom of expression is all about.


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