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No place for truth

August 1, 2016

While Germany continues to be criticized by proponents of free speech for its laws criminalizing Holocaust denial, it is far from being a lone offender in this regard. Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, and Russia – in other words, most of Europe – have similar laws on the statute books, to say nothing of countries like Switzerland and the Netherlands, which also prosecute the offense under more general provisions prohibiting hate speech or the defense of genocide. The Council of Europe and the United Nations have upheld these laws over protests that they are both an offense against human rights and a concession to Nazism, thereby privileging stability and order over personal liberty.

However, the true danger inherent in Holocaust denial laws is not their restriction of speech and expression, but rather the relationship that they establish between the state and objective truth. The Holocaust happened, the German government (and that of Austria, Belgium, etc.) declares. It is an historical fact. Therefore, it cannot be questioned, and to attempt to do so is a crime. With the passage of such laws, the state moves from its role as an arbiter of subjective knowledge into that of a selector of objective knowledge. And once the state has chosen its truth of choice, civil rights disappear altogether instead of simply being limited, because, the state can argue, no one has the right to declare what is obviously and verifiably untrue without punishment.

The hazard is compounded by the manner in which the state selects objective truth. It does not do so on its own; instead, it relies on the consensus of scholars and experts. Historians overwhelmingly assert the reality of the Holocaust; therefore, the German government (and Austria, Belgium, etc.) follows their lead. It would be unlikely to fly in the face of public opinion and promote an improbable truth. As the experts say, so the state does.

Suppose the same standard were applied in the United States with regard to another political issue on which there is near-total scholarly consensus: global warming. Although a substantial minority of Americans question whether it exists at all, the scientific community is vocal in asserting that it does. If the state were to adopt the position that scientific truth would be enforced as law, it would negate the value of all debate on the subject, of which there is a considerable amount. Truth is protected, state authorities would say, and just as the right of free speech is not interpreted to protect libel or slander, so they would argue that it does not protect objection to widely recognized facts.  Nor is it deemed to shield speech which is an imminent danger to others.

A similar dissonance is taking place in the United Kingdom at the moment, where academics and writers are decrying the decision of the electorate to leave the European Union. “Too much democracy!” they cry, and go on to say that elites are required in order to save democracy from itself. The popular voice must be moderated by the widsom of Those Who Know, regardless of what effect that has on human rights.

But if objective truth, so far as man can perceive it, is to become identical with the law, the power of those who determine what truth is would be enhanced almost beyond limitation. In this regard, the role and power of the psychiatric community is even more important than that of the pure scientists. For example, psychiatrists protest that those individuals who have been diagnosed with mental disorders should not be permitted to own weapons; what happens if they declare a liking for weapons to be itself a mental disorder, so that a desire becomes its own condemnation? Or a rejection of the scientific consensus on global warming, since only an insane man would ignore the reality of the world around him. Or opposition to universal healthcare, since the sure sign of an ill man is that he doesn’t believe himself to be ill and declines treatment. These positions, of course, are all progressive ones, chosen because it has been political and social progressives who have been most vocal in their insistence that the law must follow knowledge. However, their fundamental demand is intensely conservative: a legislated standard of belief against which behavior can be measured, so that irrational behavior can be determined and dealt with by extra-legal means.

For thousands of years, cynics have said that truth has no place in politics. It is in the best interest of the individual for him to ensure that things stay that way.

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