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Freedom of speech: Can we take it?
by Dimitrios Kontopodis
2007-05-11 10:14:52
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On the night of May 10th, 1933, the German national socialist government staged the most famous book burning ceremony of all time. Around 20,000 books were thrown into the flames on the opera square in Berlin by members of the Nazi youth, with the state radio reporting live from the scene. Selected youth members accompanied the act with the so-called "fire sayings", one of which was the following:

Against falsification of our history and degradation of its great characters, for awe of our past! I hand over to the flames the works of Emil Ludwig and Werner Hegemann. (Source here)

Nowadays civilized countries don't burn books any more (with occasional exceptions, like some religious fanatics in the USA that have burned Harry Potter books). However, falsification of history is still a very delicate issue that causes hysterical reactions. For example, a few months ago the French National Assembly decided to outlaw the denial of the Armenian genocide. At the same time, in Turkey it is forbidden to assert that such a genocide ever happened.

Germany and Austria have introduced quite strict laws against "holocaust denial". In a prominent case that ended in February 2006, the British historian David Irving was sentenced to three years in prison for asserting there were no gas chambers in Auschwitz. Last month, an attempt of the German EU presidency to pass a similar law in a European level has failed, thanks to the resistance of countries that are more sensitive when it comes to freedom of speech.

Needless to say, if the governments impose historical truth by law, then the historians will soon be out of business. It is actually the duty of the historian to re-examine the available sources and re-interpret the events. Re-writing history is not heresy and history books are not the Bible.

From a practical point of view, such laws have a very serious negative side-effect. They offer publicity to the very pieces of propaganda that they try to combat. As far as I am concerned, the only reason I can think of for reading the works of David Irving is because his views are illegal.

The most important aspect of the issue, however, is the limitation of the freedom of speech. To be able to live in a liberal society, we need to be able to listen to opinions that may be wrong, absurd, heretic and outrageous, and then use our cognitive powers to draw logical conclusions. And I am really afraid of the state drawing those conclusions for me.

After all, one has to wonder what the simple individuals like you and me were thinking when Galileo was facing the Holy Inquisition for supporting the outrageous thesis that the Earth is moving.

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alloydog2007-05-11 12:49:38
"...history books are not the Bible"
But even the Bible is effectively a carefully put together collection of personal accounts, third-party interpretation's and even allegorical stories... ;)

Dimitrios2007-05-11 15:32:42
Actually what I meant is that history should not be seen dogmatically. It should be held in a constant process of correction and interpretation according to the available evidence. Religious books on the contrary are considered to be "holy" and, if they happen to contradict available evidence, then it is the evidence that is casted into doubt.

Sand2007-05-11 18:19:19
There are all sorts of limitations on speech and some are official, some are cultural, and some are merely kind. Much of the alphabet has words attached to individual letters which are not permitted on radio. "Z" apparently is still free as no zebras have yet voiced disapproval.

rinso2007-05-12 08:56:58
If governments rewrite history you end up with a "1984" society. And I have the feeling that many burocrats are working (unknowingly?) in that direction.

Sand2007-05-12 09:27:58
It is a common aphorism that the winners of a conflict always write the history. This seems to apply to all sorts of historical literature including the major holy books.

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