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Trigger Warning is not just a shallow take on an important subject; it is a sloppy piece of journalism. For example, in the book’s first chapter Hume writes: “To borrow a phrase from the techies, free speech might be called the ‘killer app’ of civilisation, the core value on which the success of the whole system depends.” In fact, he is not borrowing from the techies but pilfering, without attribution, from a neoconservative, Niall Ferguson, who has written a best-selling book called Civilisation: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power.

Spiked journalists make a living railing against the oversensitivity of the Left. But their attacks have become just as predictable, just as knee-jerk, as the ex-comrades they love to loathe. Contrarianism runs through everything they write. Hume’s rebellious streak has doubtless helped him expose the absurdities and hypocrisies of those who pledge their support for freedom of speech one day and suppress it the next. But contrarianism can blind, too.

When it comes the question of what to do about Holocaust denial, an issue given renewed prominence last month with Tony Blair’s recommendation that Britain criminalise it, Hume forgets to turn his contrarian autopilot off. Defenders of free speech are right to oppose the bans on Holocaust denial that are in place in many EU countries. Censorship cannot kill a bad idea. Hume, however, must take things further: Holocaust denial should not only be legal, it should be free from taboo as well:

In many circumstances, the Holocaust becomes less an historic atrocity to be taught, discussed and understood in its political context and more a matter of religious orthodoxy, a moral parable about human evil to be learnt by rote. This put the accepted version of what happened and why beyond question, something that secular authorities were no more prepared to have debated than the Pope might be willing to haggle over transubstantiation.

Later, he asks the reader to be as outraged as he is that “those who question the history of the Holocaust are treated as the secular equivalent of heretics today, pariahs to be cast out of civilised society”. Is that such a bad thing? It is hardly a free-speech travesty that David Irving, Britain’s most notorious Holocaust denier, is persona non grata at respectable universities. Perhaps the words of Charles Grey, the judge who in 2000 dismissed Irving’s libel claim against Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth & Memory, might remind Hume of the nature of the “historians” he thinks we are wrong to ignore.  Grey said that Irving, “for his own ideological reasons, deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence” and “for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light”. He went on to make clear that Irving was “anti-Semitic and racist and that he associated with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism”.

To ask, as Hume does, for a fair hearing for all ideas, even after they have been exposed as lies motivated by hatred, is to stretch moral relativism past its elastic limit. Freedom of speech is such a vital liberty because it allows us to sort good ideas from bad ones, not because there is no such thing as good and bad.

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June 29th, 2015
7:06 AM
But but ...l support your right to free speech until a given time when somebody or other - maybe a judge - decides it is a lie motivated by hatred. Wow you really do not believe in free speech in any meaningful way. Next ban after holocaust denial would be any hate speech, any radical Islam. And would the hate go without a means of communication or a freedom to Believe in? Get a reviewer not so ensconced in Fighting marginal fascists to give his life meaning

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