Monday, November 26, 2007

Free speech

"... if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil's advocate can conjure up".

John Stuart Mill. On Liberty.

I doubt if even the most ingenious devil's advocate could have dreamt up Holocaust denial, but even if we allow Mill's utilitarian argument to stand and to assert that the absolute right to free speech is an essential guarantee against tyranny, the Oxford Union should be ashamed of itself.

Every right imposes on others the duty to respect it. In the case of free speech, the duty imposed is not to prosecute or persecute those who express opinions other than yours. It does not impose a duty to help those who would spread lies, to spread them. It does not impose a duty to help publish the views of those that express hatred of others. It does not impose a duty to allow those that would deny the right of free speech to pose as the victims of censorship. It does not impose a duty to legitimate fascism.

However, Mill's essay does impose another duty; to stand up for truth, to vigorously oppose falsehood, even if it is not to be suppressed. The Oxford Union have failed in that duty, and those who, like Max Hastings, think that "the debate can do no harm" should remember another, somewhat contradictory, sentence from Mill's essay.

"But, indeed, the dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution, is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes".

9 comments:

Dr Hiding Pup said...

I feel a great pride in never having being snared, not once, into giving that particular bunch of pretentious upstarts any of my money!

Dr Hiding Pup said...

On a different note, surely Irving shows us that post-structuralism is morally bankrupt and has no place at all in the future of the humanities? If, as the argument goes, there is no objective truth, then anything is as true as anything else. Enter Irving.

Irving is the apotheosis of a university system that privileges sounding important over intelligence; and intellectual acrobatics over wisdom, life and truth.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

It is quite clear that truth doesn't always triumph.

Unfortunately, it is also clear that repetition triumphs quite frequently. Which is the card Irving and his likes are playing.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

P.S. Scratch that "It is quite clear" stupidity of mine, please. "I think that" is what I meant to say.

KB Player said...

Very elegantly put, Your Amplitude. Why are people so thick about this? "You didn't invite me for drinks. What about my freedom of association?"

Graeme said...

"Irving is the apotheosis of a university system that privileges sounding important over intelligence; and intellectual acrobatics over wisdom, life and truth."

That seems more a flaw with the Oxbridge system than with post-structuralism as such.

Dr Hiding Pup said...

Actually, Graeme, Irving never studied or taught at Oxford or Cambridge. And the Oxford Union is a completely separate organization from the University of Oxford, and receives no money from the university.

In fact, wasn't Richard J Evans, Professor of History at Cambridge, Lipstadt's expert witness in Irving's libel suit?

So the point of your last comment was what exactly?

neil craig said...

"I doubt if even the most ingenious devil's advocate could have dreamt up Holocaust denial"

I think you will find that an awful lot of "respectable" people in the British establishment dreamt up the idea of denying the Krajina Holocaust or even the primary massacre at Srebrenica (that of 3,600 serbs civilians -overwhelmingly women, old people & children).

When you support fascist government censorship, allegedly to protect the gulible masses, you get fascist government censorship.

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