Heresy: Environment, Holocaust, etc

Modern Heresies:

Frank Furedi has a piece in Spiked Online defending free thought from what he calls "modern inquisitions." It began with the campaign to squash Holocaust denial, and perhaps if it had stopped there, everything would have been fine. It didn't:

At a time when moralists find it difficult clearly to differentiate between right and wrong, they are forced to find some other way to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. So they seize examples of unambiguous evil – paedophilia, the Holocaust, pollution – in order to define potential moral transgression. Today’s heresy hunters strive to construct new taboos....

The Holocaust has been transformed into an all-purpose moral metaphor adopted by a variety of special interest campaigns and crusades. This Holocaust brand has been co-opted for other experiences, too; we now hear debates about the African-American Holocaust, the Serbian Holocaust, the Bosnian Holocaust, the Rwandan Holocaust. Anti-abortionist crusaders protest about the ‘Holocaust of fetuses’ and animal rights activists denounce the ‘Holocaust of seals’ in Canada. Such manipulation of the Holocaust metaphor turns an historic tragedy into a caricature. Many US Jews were angered when an animal rights organisation launched a campaign that compared the slaughter of livestock to the murder of Jews in the Holocaust. A campaign exhibition, called ‘Holocaust on Your Plate’, juxtaposed images of people in concentration camps with pictures of animals in pens.

Many co-opt the Holocaust brand to win legitimacy and backing for their campaigns. And they insist that anyone who questions their version of events should be treated in a manner similar to those who deny the real Holocaust. ‘Do Armenian citizens of France not deserve the same protection as their Jewish compatriots?’, asked an advocate of criminalising the denial of the Armenian genocide of 1915 (5). In the past two decades, accusing someone of denial has become the twenty-first-century equivalent of labelling them a heretic. Those who deny the claims of fashionable campaigners and causes can expect to be censored and treated with intolerance. Following the precedent set by laws against Holocaust denial, the French National Assembly passed a law in October last year that could sentence to a year’s imprisonment anyone who denies the Armenian genocide.

The act of denial has been transformed into a generic evil. This is clear in the way that the stigmatisation of denial has leapt from the realm of historic controversies over genocides to other areas of debate. Denial has become a kind of free-floating blasphemy, which can attach itself to a variety of issues and problems. One environmentalist writer argues that the ‘language of “climate change”, “global warming”, “human impacts” and “adaptation” are themselves a form of denial familiar from other forms of human rights abuse’ (6). It seems that some people can no longer tell what a difference in opinion looks like – it’s all just ‘denial’.

The charge of denial has become a secular form of blasphemy. A book written by an author who is sceptical of today’s prevailing environmentalist wisdom was dismissed with the words: ‘The text employs the strategy of those who, for example, argue that gay men aren’t dying of AIDS, that Jews weren’t singled out by the Nazis for extermination, and so on.’ (7) This forced association of three highly charged issues – pollution, AIDS, the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews – shows how denial has become an all-purpose blasphemy.
It's a good piece, one that explores each of these ideas in greater depth -- and gives special attention, at the end, to serious questions about the real problem of Holocaust denial. It is, as he said at the beginning, a clear example of bad behavior; but should we therefore shut down free speech?

My sense has always been that we should let people hold to what they will, and let evidence and argument sort it out. It seems to me that there's no advantage to criminalizing Holocaust denial, for example, because it is readily disproven. Thus, someone who insists on cleaving to it discredits himself except with those who wish likewise to believe the claim.

There are problems arising from criminalizing the act of Holocaust denial, too, several of which the author considers at length. But here is one more: if they are free to speak their minds, Holocaust deniers will normally tell you who they are. Particularly for a Europe worried about resurgent fascist movements, this is a real advantage. It's easier to keep a head count if everyone you want to count is ready to stand up and wave.

No comments: