“I will not debate any Holocaust Denier.”
These were the words of Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of religious studies at Emory University and an expert on the effects the Holocaust has had on modern Jews.
This seems reasonable. Those who have made a cottage industry of denying the Holocaust ever occurred are typically animated by a commingling of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Some more egregious troglodytes seek to engage in historical revisionism to resurrect some new version of the Third Reich.
One of these slobs is a guy by the name of David Irving.
He started out as a Hitler biographer, and quietly morphed into a Hitler sympathizer. He also became famous as being a Holocaust denier. His message was somewhat nuanced though… war begets causalities, and certainly there were causalities amongst the Jews, but these were incidental at most, and there was certainly no systematic pogrom by the glorious Third Reich to exterminate the Jews! That was just pure hogwash, designed by Jews to bolster the need for a state of Israel. And all of those inconvenient tattoos that Holocaust survivors bear on their forearms? Well… self-induced for either pity or profit by a gullible population.
Yeah, the clown is a piece of human excrement.
He also decided to sue Professor Lipstadt for defamation because she called out his nonsense in one of her books.
This lawsuit, which was heard in London in 1996, resulted in her being found not liable for defamation. This became the subject of a movie called Denial that premiered in 2016 and, like her legal defense, was funded by many prominent Jews in Hollywood.
I watched it the other night… and frankly liked it. But something about it, well… just didn’t sit right with me.
After some serious contemplation, I realized what it was… her refusal to debate.
She did this out of a principled position that to debate Holocaust deniers was to legitimize them. Fair enough… but, in the end, that is precisely what she did (well, through her attorneys and what ultimately resulted in her legal victory).
Refusal to participate, or what I call “unilateralism”, is both dangerous and an affront to Classical Liberalism. As the noted historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. stated (and I have quoted this before), “Unilateralism breeds the arrogance of ignorance, and ignorance breeds bad policy.”
But maybe policy is not the only casualty to the belief of infallibility. Perhaps there is a greater moral threat that quite literally can stop history in its tracks.
John Stuart Mill, one of the leading thinkers during the American Revolution (from the other side of the Pond… he was actually British and living in England), wrote a treatise called “On Liberty”. In his discussion of free speech he wrote the following:
“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation, those who dissent from the opinion, still more that those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of TRUTH PRODUCED BY ITS COLLISION WITH ERROR” (emphasis added, because I dig that last part).
His writings surely influenced a near contemporary of Mill… the incomparable Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel articulated the Hegelian dialectic, which incidentally is the foundational principle of the modern scientific method. Someone or “someones” postulate a thesis. This could be as grand as the nature of man, and as mundane as the milk has expired. This thesis is then tested by someone holding an alternative point of view. This is the antithesis. These two contradictory notions are then slammed together, each challenging the other. Invariably, the strengths of one outweigh the deficiencies of the other, but usually not without some degree of bloodletting. The dominant argument must account for anomalies. It must become fleshed out more and improved to run counterargument to the legitimate points brought up by the alternate point of view. In short, it must become stronger, more robust, more “true”. This new and improved thesis (or antitheses if it defeats the thesis) becomes the synthesis, a new paradigm that has moved us closer towards truth, perfection, and, frankly, beauty.
This is literally how history is made.
A nation produces a thesis about itself, sometimes vis-a-vis their neighbors on the world stage, sometimes about their own domestic inadequacies. This is then challenged (sometimes through force of arms) by the antithesis… those who fundamentally disagree with their position. The synthesis… for good or ill is what emerges.
But what if we just stop?
Well… some have tried just that. The Soviet Union, or, for that matter, all totalitarian regimes are based on a principle of state-omniscient knowledge. It has to be, for if the state is capable of fallacy then the legitimacy of the state is called into question. The Hegelian Dialectic is an abomination to a centralized state planner. Truth is what the state says it is. In a sense… history ends with the totalitarian State.
Or does it?
People are naturally inclined to question, at least to a limited degree. They are certainly inclined to be disgruntled when their expectations are not met. Thus, we see the silent (and sometimes not so silent) emergence of tribalism within nations. Tribalism is defined in two ways: a common language and a belief that the tribe is subjected to an existential threat from those outside the tribe. (Incidentally, this is also how cultures develop.)
The problem with tribalism is that nascent existential threat from the outside. That threat is palpable, and oftentimes creates a dogma within the tribe to create, well… tribal cohesion. That dogmatic principle is intolerant of dissent, and such, is intolerant of that dreaded beast the “antithesis”.
I spent the Toilet Paper War years stunned that my fellow humans would become such passionate advocates for bureaucrats. The vitriol spewed by the maskers and the non-maskers was only a prelude to the full-out religiosity by the “Vaxers” and the “Non-Vaxers”. (Only the wars between the Catholics and the Protestants in 17th century Europe seem to be on the same level.)
Yet, like Professor Lipstadt, there would be no debate.
The dominant paradigm refused to engage. The Tribe of the Vax would not entertain the ramblings of the Tribe of the Non-Vax. Theirs was a position of ignorance, ineptitude, a rejection of science, and the culmination of group think. (Please note that last sentence was not meant for one of the two tribes. It fits both succinctly.)
The Vax had a point. We have had vaccinations before. They sort of worked. Hell, George Washington “vaxed” his soldiers against small pox at Valley Forge. The Anti-Vax also had a point. Natural immunity sort of worked. Most people, actually the vast amount of most people who got Covid recovered. The vaxing of the immune made no sense.
Yet, these arguments would only be made to those who were already in the Tribe. They literally were preaching to the choir. Those in the other tribe were deemed heretics if they so much as contemplated the truth on the other side.
This has also, interestingly enough, been one of the foundational principles of our own Second Amendment tribe. On the other side of the divide is the Disarmament Tribe. We have our arguments, our beliefs, our core ideals. They have theirs. Both our tribes are grounded in the belief of our own infallibility. Our (as well as their) movement has been based not on the rigorous examination of our own thesis against their antithesis, but rather upon the overturning of legislation that seeks to exterminate us. We challenge in court and we proffer our candidates for office. We also seek to expand our tribe by encompassing a new generation. What we don’t do is offensively go after the thought of the other tribe. Nor do they have any interest in going after our thoughts either. “Do not debate a pro-gun advocate!” To do so would legitimize them! “Do not debate an anti-gun advocate! It is like a religion to them! They cannot give up their faith!”
So, this is what we have become… in our own nation. A nation founded on the ideals of free speech, of Classical Liberalism, of the belief in limited government to ensure that highest level of individual freedom possible. We ourselves have now shrugged off the march of history. Our own tribes are infallible… at least until they are not.
All true but what happens if a tribe seeking debate/dialogue is continually shut down when another tribe in substantial ownership of the debate medium uses that medium like a sanitizing weapon to erase completely the alternative view?
Another very interesting and thoughtful post, thank you!
It seems like to me that philosophies have this brilliant insight but yet not quite satisfying and not quite fitting with the totality of reality, much like psychology. Nonetheless, there are important things to learn from them. I thought you brought out some great insights. Appreciated it sir!
I do have one question that occurred. What is the anti-thesis of the Hegelian idea?
In a past life, I was involved with land use and the war for access. There was/is a side(tribe) that I call Preservationists which seek to eliminate all access to humans except for foot travel. They are against resource exploration, and any motorized recreation. However, they are fine driving their car and living in a home for which both have heavy impacts on the environment. I have always seen these people as hypocrites. This group of people views public land as their own, they are better organized, better funded, uncompromising and relentless. Basically, a formidable adversary.
One of the other sides is the Recreationalists. They go to enjoy public land in their offroad vehicles to camp and explore. This is a happy and carefree group. They view land as belonging to the government, they are relatively unorganized, poorly funded, and they believe that there is a compromise. They have a poor understanding of their adversary are losing the war on land access.
The Recreationlists defend against legislation that limits access but they never attack the existence of the Preservationists themselves.
This is very much like your example in the blog. Your blog brought me back to the same mentality and approach that I saw in during my time dealing with land use.
Sad no one learns from history…