Racism is a crime; being a racist is not

posted 21 February 2006

British "holocaust denier" David Irving has been given a 3-year jail sentence for denying, in 1989, that the gas chambers existed at Auschwitz.

This is important, for a lot of reasons.

Firstly, it's important to note that he's being punished for something he said 17 years ago, and which he retracted 15 years ago. In 1991, he read the Eichmann papers, he stopped saying that the Nazis had not killed millions of Jews, and instead admitted -- and continues to admit -- that they did. So, is it still "holocaust denial" if you retract your statements? Exactly are we punishing here?

And what is the crime of Holocaust denial? Because it seems like you're punishing speech, and a strangely particular piece of speech. Eleven countries in Europe have laws specifically against denying the existence of the Holocaust. That's a very, very specific piece of anti-semitism. Why is it that this piece of speech is so abhorrent as to require specific legislation, while other sorts of speech -- even hate speech -- are okay?

Which is of course where this ties into recent events, specifically the row over anti-Islamic cartoons. I have to tread carefully to avoid upsetting anyone here, and may fail to do so, but one has to ask: what exactly is the difference between these two bits of speech? Why is one so offensive that eleven separate countries passed a law against it, but protests against the other were considered such an attack on free speech that other papers published these extremely offensive cartoons "in solidarity"? Is it simply a matter of degree? How evil does the speech have to be, exactly, before you can write a law against it? Can you give me a number? Because if you can't then it's subjective, and that opens a huge can of worms.

I don't like the concept of the crime of "holocaust denial". It seems like a stupid thing to legislate against, legislating against a symbol instead of the problem itself, akin to banning hoodies in an attempt to bar criminal youths. What you'd really like to punish is racism, but that's a thought, and you can't ban them, and you've already banned racist violence, so instead you find this populist sop of banning one particular piece of speech. You're left with this bizarre situation where it's illegal to say the Nazis never killed 6 million Jews, but totally legal to say "yes they did, and it's great!" -- but only as long as you don't add "And now let's kill some more!" I don't like it that racists say evil things, but I don't think we should be allowed to legally bar them from doing so.

And the reason it's a bad idea to ban one piece of speech is precisely the one we've run into in the last few weeks. If you ban only one bit of hate speech, the people against whom hate speech is not banned will feel justly discriminated against. And if you go the other way, and attempt to ban all hate speech, you will be soundly defeated, because it's a broad enough attack on free speech to piss off everyone. So you cannot ban just one piece of speech, and you cannot ban one type of speech.

So as offensive as it is, you must allow people to deny the truth about the horrors inflicted upon the Jews, and these holocaust denial laws must be struck down. And honestly, is this such a bad thing? What are these laws achieving? Do we think that anti-semites, deprived of the ability to say one particular offensive thing, suddenly stop being anti-semites, or even stop believing that thing? If anything, dignifying these ridiculous denials of reality with specific legislation merely adds credence to those who claim there is some sort of conspiracy -- if it's the truth, then the truth stands for itself, so why do we need a law to back it up?

David Irving does not strike me as a nice man. His speech and his words smack of racism and hypocrisy of the worst kind, and his snivelling words of retraction on television seemed insincere. But being a racist is not a crime, and nor is stating your racist, erroneous opinions, as we widely and correctly decided during the cartoons controversy. You cannot legislate against thought, and all these holocaust denial laws do not end racist thought anyway. All they do is make us look like hypocrites in the eyes of the islamic world.

And until these laws are struck down, the reason we will look like hypocrites is because we are.