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Debate: Are some topics inappropriate to debate?

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Are some topics inappropriate to debate?

Background and context

Some people believe things that are not true. Many neo-nazis and anti-semites believe that the Holocaust did not happen, for example. The Flat-Earth Society, while tiny, still exists. Claims that the Nanjing Massacre of Chinese civilians by Japanese troops in 1937 never happened continue to be influential in contemporary Japan, and it was denied by Japanese government officials as recently as 1990 - there is widespread scepticism in some Japanese nationalist circles about other Japanese wartime atrocities. An enormous number of fundamentalist Christians believe that the world was created by God in seven days a few thousand years ago. Many who hold views like these seek to gain a wider audience for these views, by appearing in public, television or radio debates, for example, or by publishing in mass-circulation magazines and newspapers. They are often denied access to such public platforms. Some experts in the relevant fields refuse to engage with them on such terms – for example the historian Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust, refuses to debate with Holocaust deniers. Others, such as the evolutionary biologist Kenneth Miller, are keen to take part in debates with their opponents. University debating societies too sometimes have to confront this issue, in considering whether to invite controversial guest speakers; in some cases this has led to clashes with university authorities over issues of freedom of speech and association.Note that I do not rehearse any arguments for or against Holocaust denial or scientific creationism. This is because both are simply false positions. This is not a debate about whether they are true; it is a debate about how to respond to false positions.

Contents

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Argument #2

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Yes

The public is interested in these topics, and has a right to hear them discussed. If there is public demand for a debate on whether the earth is flat or round, on whether 2 + 2 = 5, or whatever, then that demand should be met. Plenty has been published arguing for creationism, for example, and has a wide readership - clearly people want to know about this topic, and should be directed to better sources of information.

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No

There are plenty of excellent sources of information in the public domain about, for example, the Holocaust or natural history. Anyone who is interested can seek them out. Anyone who wants to publicise them can do so. No good source of information about natural history concludes that the world was created by God in seven days, because it was not. Anything which claims the contrary is, by definition, not a good source of information. We should not waste time on such sources, or give a platform to people who believe in them.

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Argument #1

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Yes

Of course people have the right to say whatever they like - subject to the laws of libel and incitement, of course. However, your freedom of speech does not give me a duty to listen to you, nor to have a discussion with you, nor to publish what you want to say. We all have to make decisions about what is worth listening to and engaging with. Holocaust denial and scientific creationism are not.

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No

Freedom of speech is a defining mark of a civilized society, and to be meaningful it has to extend to everyone, whatever they want to say -if we restrict freedom of speech to people we agree with, then speech is not really free. Even if not instructive, it's fun listening to flat-earth-supporters.

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Argument #3

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Yes

Holocaust denial and scientific creationism are wrong. If we present the evidence against them, we will win. We should have confidence in the power of our arguments to defeat our opponents and persuade the public at large. If we refuse to engage with them then we look scared - in the eyes of many uninformed onlookers, we lose.

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No

Public discourse does not consist of the dispassionate presentation of facts to a perfectly rational audience who will all reach the same, correct conclusion. It involves the articulate, stylish presentation of arguments designed to appeal to your audience and make your position look as attractive as possible. If someone organised a debate between a world champion debater and an inarticulate academic historian on the question of whether the Holocaust happened, the debater might well win, and might well convince many people. But the Holocaust still happened.

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Argument #4

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Yes

Debate in all its forms - TV and radio discussions, parliamentary democracy, school and university debating, and so on - has conventions giving equal time to opposing positions. This gives legitimacy to both sides, reflecting the fact that most debates are on questions of opinion and interpretation, not of fact. In debates about fact, where one side is demonstrably right and the other wrong, we should not give legitimacy to the false position. Those who promote views which are false, and may be dangerous, will boast that they have spoken at prestigious universities or debated against eminent authorities to give their views more credibility; they will not record how their speeches were received.

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No

However distasteful you may find them, however ignorant they may be, many people really do deny the Holocaust, or believe that Japan has no reason to be ashamed of its conduct in the Imperial period. If they are wrong - and of course they are - then we have to engage with them, discuss their ideas and beliefs and show them why they are wrong.

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Argument #5

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Yes

Both scientific creationism and Holocaust denial have serious, and dangerous, hidden agendas. Deniers of the Nanjing Massacre believe that the Japanese did nothing wrong in the Second World War and continue to claim that it was a war of liberation against western colonialism - feeding Japanese militarism today. Holocaust deniers, in claiming that a Jewish conspiracy is responsible for the widespread belief that six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, are closely allied to anti-semitism and neo-nazism. We should not allow such views the legitimacy which being debated gives them.

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No

If these views have hidden agendas, all the more reason to expose them in public. The fact that Holocaust denial leads to neo-nazism will, for most people, be one more compelling argument against it; creationism’s necessarily literalistic approach to scripture can easily be shown to be ridiculous. Again, the truth has nothing to fear, and the evil implications of falsehood should not be covered up by refusing to engage with it.

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Argument #6

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Yes

If everyone disagrees with you, it’s easy to get paranoid. If everyone disagrees with you because you’re wrong, that’s just tough. Turning creationism and Holocaust denial into respectable, legitimate positions - with, let’s not forget, serious and dangerous political implications - is too high a price to pay for reducing creationism’s and Holocaust denial’s appeal to conspiracy theorists.

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No

Holocaust deniers frequently accuse their opponents of censoring their views, of refusing to engage with them - and often ascribe this to a Jewish conspiracy against them. Scientific creationists complain that evolutionists refuse to consider what they present as ‘evidence’ for a young earth - and claim that scientists are scared of the truth. If we refuse to allow them a platform then we give legitimacy to these complaints, and can make their other arguments seem more persuasive, letting them ask, ‘If our position is wrong, why won’t anyone discuss it? Is it because they know we’re right?’ Censorship is counterproductive.

See also

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