For the last week, I've been puzzling over an article by Frank Furedi in Spiked. Furedi argues that in the 21st century, the concept of "denial" -- in the critical sense, as in a "Holocaust denier," an "AIDS denier," or a "climate change denier" -- has become a secular replacement for heresy. The essay alternates between bold, compelling, insightful discussion of the relevant issues and a vague, thin, accusatory rhetoric that reveals a little too much about the author's agenda.
Here are the main points. I'm paraphrasing, and (in some cases) I think I'm presenting the point in a more effective manner, but anyway:
- "Those who question prevailing cultural orthodoxies are treated as immoral, evil people, and their arguments depicted as a form of secular heresy."
- Targeting denial isn't about the highly-charged emotional context of the issues (i.e. genocide, the environment, etc.), but about an intolerance towards free thinking.
- Traditional heresy involves denying an article of religious truth, but those have been supplanted by articles of historical and scientific truth.
- "Heresy-hunters" strive to follow the model of the ultimate 20th-century taboo, Holocaust denial, by constructing new taboos.
- In this way, denial becomes a "generic evil," a "free-floating blasphemy" that can apply to anything.
- Difference of opinion disappears in the context of debate, replaced by accusations of denial.
- The perceived danger of taboo opinions makes it "responsible behavior" to repress those opinions. Hence the wave of existing and proposed anti-denial laws (anti-genocide in the EU, criminalizing AIDS misinformation, etc.)
- These "denial" accusations deliberately conflate the psychological and critical definitions of "denial" in order to discredit a viewpoint, as well as the holder of that viewpoint. Being a denier is like being "in denial." So, as in the psychological case, denial is a disability that results in suppressed information and does damage to society -- which allows the people who subscribe to those articles of historical and scientific truth to justify censoring deniers.
- Moreover, it's not really about the desire to affirm those truths, but about about "moral policing."
- Finally, the secular heresy of "denial" constitutes a serious threat to freedom of speech and thought, one which outweighs the ultimately negligible positive effects of censoring taboo ideas.
However, in claiming that accusations of "denial" arise from an intolerance of free thinking, Furedi shortchanges the social, political, and emotional context. People's motives as scholars and scientists are (of course) affected by what they care about and what they believe should take happen in the world. Though censorship might arise from a given situation, not wanting people to get inaccurate information about AIDS doesn't exactly describe an intolerance of free thought.
Which leads me to the article's major flaw: the lack of a critical qualitative distinction between good and bad scholarship or science. One's skill at scientific or historical research should not have any bearing on one's democratic right to free expression, nor should one's personal agenda. But these characteristics may start to explain the vehemence with which people attack revisionist Holocaust historians or industry-backed climate change skeptics. After all, bad science is bad science, and people invested in getting accurate information to the public concerning, say, epidemic disease, might be pretty invested in minimizing the influence of poorly researched, unsupportable conclusions. Again, no effect on the free speech issues, but the argument for the intrinsic value of free thinking loses some integrity when it tries to compare David Irving to Copernicus.
I prefer Deborah Lipstadt's take on this question (also from Spiked...hmm). She has no compunction about calling someone a denier, but she doesn't believe in criminalizing or persecuting genocide denial. She describes the proposed EU genocide denial laws as a "body blow to academic debate." And, though I don't want to revert to using someone's C.V. to support the validity of their claims, she does have a great deal of experience in this matter, and she pursues Holocaust deniers aggressively. But she doesn't want them in jail. because of freedom of speech, because of the need to avoid making deniers into martyrs, and because making a law against genocide-denying speech implies that we don't have the evidence to prove the truth.
I like the third reason best. She's basically saying that she doesn't want to censor deniers, she wants to beat them. Debunk their scholarship, destroy their credibility, prove that they're wrong, and let them "fade into obscurity." I can get behind that, because a) it's the right thing to do; b) it not only preserves freedom of speech, it encourages it; c) it keeps us focused on deepening our knowledge of things like genocide and pollution, thus keeping them in our minds and on our agenda; and d) it places the weight of the argument where it should be -- in the evidence.
I already noted how badass Deborah Lipstadt was, but it's worth mentioning again.