Brian Cuban has been in the news a lot lately for spearheading a campaign to get FaceBook to ban groups of Holocaust deniers. I fear I may have inadvertently picked a fight with him on Twitter however when I recently tweeted:
“Can’t support (@bcuban‘s efforts to force FBook to purge Holocaust deniers. Suppressing those who were X in ’30s enabled what happened in 40s.”
Of course, as I also tweeted later, “Nothing like tweeting about the Holocaust 140 characters at a time…” While I know what I meant by my tweet, so compressed my meaning might not be clear to others. So I’ll elaborate here.
As I explained in a tweet back to him at one point, my visit to the museum at the Dachau concentration camp has been hugely influential to my thinking about the Holocaust. In the main building there is a series of exhibits documenting the history of the entire period starting from the first World War. As the exhibits slowly snake around the large room they show how, bit by bit, things changed in German society. These changes were so slow and incremental, with each one often seeming so reasonable in the context of what had come before, that it was hard to realize — except once at the end of the museum, looking back across the room — just how unreasonable they ultimately were.
Hitler was, of course, a lunatic, and the Nazis were autocrats who turned on their own populations. But their power hadn’t been suddenly seized; rather they were able to fan the disaffection of an electorate, whose frustrations and intolerance provided the political support necessary to cement their grip on power and enable their subsequent evils. Like I tweeted originally, what happened in the 40s was precipitated by what happened in the 30s, so if we want to ensure that the later events never happen again then we cannot allow what came before to be repeated either.
The problem with Holocaust deniers, and where I do agree with Cuban, is that their denial advances the same kind of animus the Nazis did in the 30s. Thus the reflex to stop it is based on the reasonable fear that if these attitudes are allowed to retrench themselves as commonly held, socially acceptable beliefs, then all those evils that followed in the ’40s might again recur now.
And yet it is because of the Holocaust itself that I am uncomfortable with what he proposes. The lesson I draw from history is that we cannot allow people to dictate what others can think and say.
Cuban made the point in his tweets that what he proposes is not state action. FaceBook is a private entity that is free to allow or prevent anyone it wants from using its services. As a basic legal matter I agree. FaceBook can kick off anyone it wants. And yet, even though it can, I don’t think it should — for two basic reasons.
One is that I fear hegemonic bullying. This is how “witches” got burned. Sure, in this instance I think Holocaust deniers are a scourge, and the views of people who accept the truth of this history should prevail. But I take no comfort in the fact that my views just so happen to conform with those of Cuban and his supporters. Because what if they didn’t?
It seems like the calculus being done is too simple: because anti-Semitism was bad then, it’s bad now, and any means of squelching it are acceptable. But what I see when I think about the days leading up to the Holocaust was a majority of people deciding that some other people were bad and wrong, and then using that belief as justification for scapegoating and suppressing them, including by taking away their freedom to speak out against the scapegoating and suppression. So I derive no comfort from agreeing with Cuban in thinking Holocaust deniers are wrong, because I don’t see what guarantee there is that someone couldn’t later decide that something else I believe in is bad and wrong and thus try to squelch my ability to think, associate, or speak freely about it.
In a blog post I wrote a few years ago about the difference in free speech values between the US and Europe I fretted about the places in the world where the incumbent power can choose what is or is not acceptable to be said. Freedom there is fragile because there’s no guarantee that the arbiter deciding who gets these freedoms is right. For instance, while today’s European powers may seek to ban racist attitudes, yesterday’s European powers sought to stoke them. Should they one day flip flop again, without the ability to speak up against these attitudes, they could once again wreak their violence. Ultimately it’s the ability to freely associate, speak, and think that provides the escape valves against such tyranny. When they are taken away, so are the critical means of self-defense against the kinds of evils the Holocaust bore.
Furthermore the fact that FaceBook is a private actor and not a governmental power seems like a distinction without a difference. In a democracy private actors easily become state actors, so if we foster a society where certain groups of private individuals think it’s proper to censor others, that’s the kind of public society we’ll have too. Indeed, the very reason Cuban sees the FaceBook shut down as being important — due to its ubiquitous utility as a means of communicating — is the very reason why I think his proposal is troublesome. If FaceBook is such an integral communications tool, depriving people of it is a significant action. The fact that the state may not be censoring does not mean that the impact of that censorship isn’t just as profound.
Moreover the censorship seems like an ineffective and unnecessary tactic. I don’t disagree that Holocaust denial is a serious problem. I do believe these attitudes need to be confronted and challenged. But I don’t think they can be silenced just by being muted. Those attitudes will persist, and possibly in more virulent form if the people holding them feel persecuted. The saying is, rightly, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Words can always be countered by more words, as long as people are always free to say them.