Free to know


We allow no taboos in the discussion and dissemination of knowledge.

Timothy Garton Ash
Timothy Garton Ash, director of Free Speech Debate, gives a personal introduction

Freedom of expression helps us get closer to the truth. It allows us to hear all views and arguments, and test our own against them. We would be most unwise to rely on the received wisdom of our time. History offers many examples of claims that were at first regarded as wild and eccentric but turned out to be true. Even false challenges can contain a sliver of truth. The mind's muscles, like the body's, must be stretched to stay strong.

To say that there should be no taboos in the discussion and dissemination of knowledge may sound obvious. Yet both public and private powers have repeatedly tried to impose such taboos, and still do. Some of the most enduring restrictions consist in putting the claims of Truth with a capital T, revealed by religious faith, before those of truth scientifically established, by testing hypotheses against evidence. Probably the most famous such case in history was that of the Roman Catholic church forcing the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei to recant his claim that the earth orbits around the sun.

In our own time, a British Imam, Usama Hasan, received death threats for arguing in his own mosque that Islam is compatible with the theory of evolution. You should not, quipped one of his critics, shout “Evolution!” in a crowded mosque. (This was a play on the famous comment by the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes that you should not be free to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.) In much of the Muslim world, evolution is still not taught. It is taboo (see P7).

Companies, cartels and professional associations have also blocked lines of inquiry they find threatening. Pharmaceutical companies have suppressed or ignored adverse evidence from scientific trials of drugs in which they have invested heavily. The British science writer Simon Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for saying that it promoted “bogus treatments” based on “not a jot of evidence”. Libel law was used to deter robust scientific debate (see P9).

Many states also impose no-go areas. Sometimes these have to do with protecting the privacy of their citizens (see P8) or official secrets justified on grounds such as national security (P10). Here, one can accept the argument in principle for some restrictions; the problem is the over-broad drawing of the boundaries. Often, however, these taboos concern knowledge of public events and personalities from the past. Here there is no such justification.

The most notorious examples involve totalitarian regimes systematically denying or misrepresenting ideologically and nationally embarrassing episodes from history. For decades, the Soviet Union denied the very existence of a secret protocol to the 1939 Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, providing for the partition of Poland between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. (I vividly recall a leading Soviet historian denying this to my face). For decades, it also claimed that Polish officers murdered by Soviet security forces at Katyn in 1940 had in fact been murdered by the Nazis in 1941. People were imprisoned for suggesting otherwise: in other words, for telling the truth.

In today’s China you may not freely discuss or disseminate knowledge about what happened on Tiananmen Square in 1989. If you search for “Tiananmen massacre” on the Baidu search engine in China, you get this message: “Search results may not comply with relevant laws, regulations or policies, and are not displayed.” In the Islamic Republic of Iran, you may not publish a critical biography of the state’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini.

Such measures are not confined to totalitarian and authoritarian governments. In Turkey, journalists get prosecuted for making critical claims about the country’s founder, Kemal Atatürk. A serious biography of Gandhi was banned in the Indian state of Gujarat, because it allegedly suggested that he may have been bisexual (a claim the author says he never made).

Restrictions on historical debate exist by law in some of Europe’s most liberal, law-abiding democracies. Here you can be sent to prison for denying that the Nazis murdered millions of European Jews during World War II, a genocide now usually known as the Holocaust. A ban on Holocaust denial was first introduced in Germany and Austria soon after 1945, at a time when there were serious fears of a Nazi revival. Today, Holocaust denial is criminalised, one way or another, in at least ten European countries.

Let me be clear: the memory of the Holocaust is of enormous importance. I would even say that for me personally it is sacred, in a secular sense of that word. For me, not just what we have done in Europe since 1945 but the larger project of constructing liberal international order is, at the deepest level, about trying to ensure that something like that never happens again. But banning people by law from denying that the Holocaust happened is entirely the wrong way to go about it.

There is an overwhelming body of historical evidence to disprove the claim that the mass murder of Europe’s Jews did not happen. If someone does not believe all that evidence, he or she is not going to be convinced just because there is a law saying so. At best, they will be frightened to say in public what they think in private. When Austria imprisoned the historian David Irving for Holocaust denial in 2006, it merely enabled him to pose as a martyr for free speech.

As with other forms of hate speech, there is also a perverse ratchet effect. Other groups say, “If their martyrdom is to be elevated to a sacred taboo, ours should be too.” This is what has happened in Europe.

In 1995, the Ottoman specialist Bernard Lewis was convicted by a French court for arguing that the terrible suffering inflicted on Armenians in the last years of Ottoman rule might not correctly be described as “genocide” according to the definition in international law. In 2007, a Turkish politician and journalist called Doğu Perinçek was sentenced in Switzerland, which has a law forbidding you to deny that what happened to the Armenians was genocide. Meanwhile, in Turkey itself, the Nobel prize winning writer Orhan Pamuk was prosecuted for suggesting – in an interview with a Swiss magazine – that what happened to the Armenians was a genocide. What is state-ordained truth in the Alps is state-ordained falsehood in Anatolia.

When a well-intentioned German justice minister pushed through a EU Framework Decision stipulating that all member states should criminalise the denial of such historical atrocities, she was confronted by east European states suggesting that denying the horrors of communist totalitarianism should be criminalised too. The Hungarian parliament passed a law criminalising Holocaust denial in 2010. Later that year, a new majority in that parliament changed the formulation of the law to “punish those who deny the genocides committed by national socialist or communist systems”. And so it goes on.

There is also a broader charge of double standards. Some Muslims say, “So you – Europeans, Christians, Jews, Enlightenment liberals – protect by law what is most sacred to you, the memory of the Holocaust, but insist that we Muslims must allow what is most sacred to us, the memory and image of the prophet Muhammad, to be subject to caricature and abuse. There’s one rule for you and another for us.” Historical facts and religious beliefs are not precisely comparable, but they surely have a point. In this mixed-up world, we must be consistent, in one direction or the other. If we put together all the taboos in the world, there won’t be much left that we can talk about.

This position is supported by the authoritative UN Human Rights Committee interpretation of Article 19, which says plainly, “Laws that penalise the expression of opinions about historical facts are incompatible with the obligations that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights imposes on States.”

None of this is to suggest for a moment that such falsifications of history, or of any other branch of knowledge, should be accepted. On the contrary: they should be vigorously contested in free and open debate. Sobered by a century of experience with totalitarianisms of the big lie, we may no longer share the magnificent optimism of the 17th century English poet John Milton’s paean to truth: “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” But no better method of combatting falsehoods has yet been found.

Nor is this to suggest that false claims should be taught in schools funded or approved by the state. This principle no more implies that creationism should be taught in public schools than it endorses Japanese textbooks giving a sanitised account of the conduct of Japanese forces in World War II. Individual media should be discriminating about what knowledge they disseminate widely. There is a powerful case for not putting information about how to make a dirty bomb or how to commit suicide on the front page. (Google search engineers actually tweak the autocomplete suggestions on this.) These are editorial choices made by private powers.

The wording of this draft principle is careful. It says only that there should be no taboos – in the sense of absolute prohibitions, enforced by a coercive power, to which there is no freely available alternative. An earlier draft said there should be no taboos in the “pursuit” of knowledge. Some of our experts pointed out that we do have such taboos in research, and civilisation may be said to depend on them. For example, we do not allow some kinds of experimentation on living human beings, such as the Nazis practiced most horrifically. So we changed it to “the discussion and dissemination of knowledge”.

Even cautiously worded like this, our fifth principle is demanding. Like living with difference, living with the free discussion and dissemination of knowledge is difficult.

Here’s one small example to chew on. In 2005, as president of one of the greatest universities in the world, the economist Larry Summers thought aloud at an academic conference about the reasons why there were fewer women than men in senior academic posts in science and engineering. He spoke undiplomatically perhaps, but not unthoughtfully – and he repeatedly warned that his hypotheses might be proved wrong. A storm of controversy ensued, which ended only with him resigning from the presidency of Harvard. There was obviously more to this story than just that one conference talk, but simply reading what Summers said, it seems to me precisely the kind of free, open-minded, fearless discussion of evidence-based knowledge that should not lead to calls for anyone to resign. Have a look and tell us what you think.

For like everything else on Free Speech Debate, this draft principle is subject to contrary evidence, counter-argument and revision. It would contradict itself were it not.


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