Wednesday, July 21, 2004

David Irving and freedom of speech

The Waikato Jewish Association wants the government to prevent infamous Holocaust-denier David Irving from visiting New Zealand. This is both wrong and stupid. Irving should be treated the same as any other potential visitor; if the fact that he has previously been convicted in Germany and deported from Canada would count against him, then so be it - but we should not be discriminating against him on the basis of his beliefs, no matter how ill-founded or poisonous they may be.

Partly this is based on straight-out liberal principles. We're a country that supposedly respects freedom of speech, and therefore we shouldn't be preventing people from speaking by preventing them from entering. While those who wish to ban Irving would argue that his ideas are wrong and harmful, he is nowhere near the traditional limit of yelling "fire" in a crowded theatre. Not even close. At worst he's guilty of spreading some rather poisonous lies intended to inflame hate against a particular group - but if that's a crime, then I can think of a few organised religions who are first into the fire.

The other half of my objection is that it is simply tactically stupid. You do not defeat Holocaust-deniers by suppressing them - that simply grants them legitimacy in their own eyes. It allows them to claim that they must be right, because they would not be being suppressed if their arguments were wrong and had no power to convince. It allows them to claim that we are afraid of them, and to draw strength from our supposed fear. And where attempts at suppression are driven by the Jewish community, it allows them to claim that there really is a Jewish conspiracy to hide the truth. This is somewhat self-defeating.

Instead, you defeat Holocaust-deniers either by ignoring them (in much the same way as we ignore the Flat Earthers, Tesla-loonies or Raelians), or by open memetic confrontation. Given the court finding against Irving, his vist is an opportunity for those who oppose him to put their case in the strongest possible terms. And if they are unwilling to do that, then their ideas are hardly worthy of being artificially propped up by the government.

I'll leave the final word to John Stuart Mill:

the particular evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Those wanting to suppress Irving would rob us of the latter, and we would be poorer for it. Instead, Irving should be as free as any other to visit and to talk - and others should be free to ignore him or argue with him as they see fit.