Thanks to the miracle of digital time travel, Legalienate's editors were able to interview the 19th century liberal John Stuart Mill on the urgent matter of the suppression of free speech in the modern Holocaust debate. Readers of Mill's "On Liberty," which made him famous as a defender of human rights, will recognize what he has to say here.
Legalienate: We're pressed for time, as always, so let's get right down to business, so to speak. Don't we have the right, the obligation even, to reject points of view so odious that they offend our ethical sensibilities to the core? Why should we debate Holocaust "deniers"?
Mill: There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.
Legalienate: But American Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that the doctrine of free speech does not permit one to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Doesn't upholding free speech for extreme points of view like Holocaust denial run the risk of inciting a general conflagration that will destroy the very rights we are seeking to protect?
Mill: Strange it is that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being "pushed to an extreme," not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case. Strange that they should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain. To call any proposition certain, while there is anyone who would deny its certainty if permitted, but who is not permitted, is to assume that we ourselves, and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side.
Legalienate: The persecution of Holocaust heretics really only affects a tiny minority of very stubborn people, doesn't it? By taking up their cause, aren't we really making much ado about very little?
Mill: It is not the minds of heretics that are deteriorated most by the ban placed on all inquiry which does not end in the orthodox conclusions. The greatest harm done is to those who are not heretics, and whose whole mental development is cramped and their reason cowed by the feat of heresy. Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral?
Legalienate: What's wrong with denigrating Holocaust "deniers," so long as we don't abolish their free speech rights?
Mill: Where there is a tacit convention that principles are not to be disputed, where the discussion of the greatest questions which can occupy humanity is considered to be closed, we cannot hope to find that generally high scale of mental activity which has made some periods of history so remarkable. . . If there are any persons who contest a received opinion, or who will do so if law or opinion will let them, let us thank them for it, open our minds to listen to them, and rejoice that there is someone to do for us what we otherwise ought, if we have any regard for either the certainty or the vitality of our convictions, to do with much greater labor for ourselves.
Legalienate: But aren't some points of view so evil that they deserve silence? And aren't others so obviously true that they needn't be argued?
Mill: First, if an opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied. Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduit; the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction from reason or personal experience.
Legalienate: But some people, like Holocaust deniers, just refuse to enter the age of reason. Don't we have ample reason to reject their perverse beliefs?
Mill: The beliefs which we have most warrant for have no safeguard to rest on but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded. If the challenge is not accepted, or is accepted and the attempt fails, we are far enough from certainty still, but we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of: we have neglected nothing that could give the truth a chance of reaching us; if the lists are kept open, we may hope that, if there be a better truth, it will be found when the human mind is capable of receiving it; and in the meantime we may rely on having attained such approach to truth as is possible in our own day. This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being, and this is the sole way of attaining it.
Legalienate: How dangerous is the suppression of heresy in your view?
Mill: It is true we no longer put heretics to death; and the amount of penal infliction which modern feeling would probably tolerate, even against the most obnoxious opinions, is not sufficient to extirpate them. But let us not flatter ourselves that we are yet free from the stain even of legal persecution. Penalties for opinion, or at least for its expression, still exist by law; and their enforcement is not, even in these times, so unexampled as to make it at all incredible that they may some day be revived in full force.
Legalienate: Indeed. In the 21st century, many Holocaust heretics are still sent to prison. Thank you for your time.
All quotes of John Stuart Mill are verbatim, from "On Liberty," published in 1859.