We allow no taboos against and seize every chance for the spread of knowledge.

A world still full of taboos

To say that there should be no taboos in the discussion and dissemination of knowledge may sound obvious. Yet both public and private powers have repeatedly tried to impose such taboos, and still do. Some of the most enduring restrictions consist in putting the claims of Truth with a capital T, revealed by religious faith, before those of truth scientifically established, by testing hypotheses against evidence. Probably the most famous such case in history was that of the Roman Catholic church forcing the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei to recant his claim that the earth orbits around the sun.

In our own time, a British Imam, Usama Hasan, received death threats for arguing in his own mosque that Islam is compatible with the theory of evolution. You should not, quipped one of his critics, shout “Evolution!” in a crowded mosque. (This was a play on the famous comment by the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes that you should not be free to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.) In much of the Muslim world, evolution is still not taught. It is taboo (see P6).

Companies, cartels and professional associations have also blocked lines of inquiry they find threatening. Pharmaceutical companies have suppressed or ignored adverse evidence from scientific trials of drugs in which they have invested heavily. The British science writer Simon Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for saying that it promoted “bogus treatments” based on “not a jot of evidence”. Libel law was used to deter robust scientific debate (see P7).

Many states also impose no-go areas. Sometimes these have to do with protecting the privacy of their citizens (see P7) or official secrets justified on grounds such as national security (P8). Here, one can accept the argument in principle for some restrictions; the problem is the over-broad drawing of the boundaries. Often, however, these taboos concern knowledge of public events and personalities from the past. Here there is no such justification.

Controlling the past

The most notorious examples involve totalitarian regimes systematically denying or misrepresenting ideologically and nationally embarrassing episodes from history. For decades, the Soviet Union denied the very existence of a secret protocol to the 1939 Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, providing for the partition of Poland between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. (I vividly recall a leading Soviet historian denying this to my face). For decades, it also claimed that Polish officers murdered by Soviet security forces at Katyn in 1940 had in fact been murdered by the Nazis in 1941. People were imprisoned for suggesting otherwise: in other words, for telling the truth.

In today’s China you may not freely discuss or disseminate knowledge about what happened on Tiananmen Square in 1989. If you search for “Tiananmen massacre” on the Baidu search engine in China, you get this message: “Search results may not comply with relevant laws, regulations or policies, and are not displayed.” In the Islamic Republic of Iran, you may not publish a critical biography of the state’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini.

Such measures are not confined to totalitarian and authoritarian governments. In Turkey, journalists get prosecuted for making critical claims about the country’s founder, Kemal Atatürk. A serious biography of Gandhi was banned in the Indian state of Gujarat, because it allegedly suggested that he may have been bisexual (a claim the author says he never made).

Holocaust denial

Restrictions on historical debate exist by law in some of Europe’s most liberal, law-abiding democracies. Here you can be sent to prison for denying that the Nazis murdered millions of European Jews during World War II, a genocide now usually known as the Holocaust. A ban on Holocaust denial was first introduced in Germany and Austria soon after 1945, at a time when there were serious fears of a Nazi revival. Today, Holocaust denial is criminalised, one way or another, in at least ten European countries.

Let me be clear: the memory of the Holocaust is of enormous importance. I would even say that for me personally it is sacred, in a secular sense of that word. For me, not just what we have done in Europe since 1945 but the larger project of constructing liberal international order is, at the deepest level, about trying to ensure that something like that never happens again. But banning people by law from denying that the Holocaust happened is entirely the wrong way to go about it.

There is an overwhelming body of historical evidence to disprove the claim that the mass murder of Europe’s Jews did not happen. If someone does not believe all that evidence, he or she is not going to be convinced just because there is a law saying so. At best, they will be frightened to say in public what they think in private. When Austria imprisoned the historian David Irving for Holocaust denial in 2006, it merely enabled him to pose as a martyr for free speech.

The taboo ratchet and double standards 

As with other forms of hate speech, there is also a perverse ratchet effect. Other groups say, “If their martyrdom is to be elevated to a sacred taboo, ours should be too.” This is what has happened in Europe.

In 1995, the Ottoman specialist Bernard Lewis was convicted by a French court for arguing that the terrible suffering inflicted on Armenians in the last years of Ottoman rule might not correctly be described as “genocide” according to the definition in international law. In 2007, a Turkish politician and journalist called Doğu Perinçek was sentenced in Switzerland, which has a law forbidding you to deny that what happened to the Armenians was genocide. Meanwhile, in Turkey itself, the Nobel prize winning writer Orhan Pamuk was prosecuted for suggesting – in an interview with a Swiss magazine – that what happened to the Armenians was a genocide. What is state-ordained truth in the Alps is state-ordained falsehood in Anatolia.

When a well-intentioned German justice minister pushed through a EU Framework Decision stipulating that all member states should criminalise the denial of such historical atrocities, she was confronted by east European states suggesting that denying the horrors of communist totalitarianism should be criminalised too. The Hungarian parliament passed a law criminalising Holocaust denial in 2010. Later that year, a new majority in that parliament changed the formulation of the law to “punish those who deny the genocides committed by national socialist or communist systems”. And so it goes on.

There is also a broader charge of double standards. Some Muslims say, “So you – Europeans, Christians, Jews, Enlightenment liberals – protect by law what is most sacred to you, the memory of the Holocaust, but insist that we Muslims must allow what is most sacred to us, the memory and image of the prophet Muhammad, to be subject to caricature and abuse. There’s one rule for you and another for us.” Historical facts and religious beliefs are not precisely comparable, but they surely have a point. In this mixed-up world, we must be consistent, in one direction or the other. If we put together all the taboos in the world, there won’t be much left that we can talk about.

This position is supported by the authoritative UN Human Rights Committee interpretation of Article 19, which says plainly, “Laws that penalise the expression of opinions about historical facts are incompatible with the obligations that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights imposes on States.”

No taboos does not mean “anything goes”

None of this is to suggest for a moment that such falsifications of history, or of any other branch of knowledge, should be accepted. On the contrary: they should be vigorously contested in free and open debate. Sobered by a century of experience with totalitarianisms of the big lie, we may no longer share the magnificent optimism of the 17th century English poet John Milton’s paean to truth: “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” But no better method of combatting falsehoods has yet been found.

Nor is this to suggest that false claims should be taught in schools funded or approved by the state. This principle no more implies that creationism should be taught in public schools than it endorses Japanese textbooks giving a sanitised account of the conduct of Japanese forces in World War II. Individual media should be discriminating about what knowledge they disseminate widely. There is a powerful case for not putting information about how to make a dirty bomb or how to commit suicide on the front page. (Google search engineers actually tweak the autocomplete suggestions on this.) These are editorial choices made by private powers.

A demanding principle

The wording of this principle is careful. It says only that there should be no taboos – in the sense of absolute prohibitions, enforced by a coercive power, to which there is no freely available alternative. An earlier draft said there should be no taboos in the “pursuit” of knowledge. Some of our experts pointed out that we do have such taboos in research, and civilisation may be said to depend on them. For example, we do not allow some kinds of experimentation on living human beings, such as the Nazis practiced most horrifically. So we changed it to “the discussion and dissemination of knowledge”.

Even cautiously worded like this, our third principle is demanding. Like living with difference, living with the free discussion and dissemination of knowledge is difficult.

Here’s one small example to chew on. In 2005, as president of one of the greatest universities in the world, the economist Larry Summers thought aloud at an academic conference about the reasons why there were fewer women than men in senior academic posts in science and engineering. He spoke undiplomatically perhaps, but not unthoughtfully – and he repeatedly warned that his hypotheses might be proved wrong. A storm of controversy ensued, which ended only with him resigning from the presidency of Harvard. There was obviously more to this story than just that one conference talk, but simply reading what Summers said, it seems to me precisely the kind of free, open-minded, fearless discussion of evidence-based knowledge that should not lead to calls for anyone to resign. Have a look and tell us what you think.

For like everything else on Free Speech Debate, this principle is subject to contrary evidence, counter-argument and revision. It would contradict itself were it not.

Comments (14)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. “We require and create open, diverse media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life.”
    Reading threw the explanation and the discussion sparked by it, I have several considerations.
    Firstly, we could consider if the right of free speech should entail a right to mislead or not. Should I be free to try and convince others with arguments that I know are bias or false? If not, should the right of free speech go hand in hand with the duty to inform oneself about the topic and the arguments being used? (Do keep in mind, that this would limit free speech to people with specific intellectual capabilities, an academic background and time.)
    Secondly, we should consider if ‘the media’ have different duties and rights then the individual? Just as confidentiality is inherently a part of professions in the law or medical sector, should the search and presentation of non-bias, objective facts (if there is such a thing) be a part of journalism? If so, where do we draw the line between an individual and a ‘member of the media’?
    Thirdly, what are the rights and duties of people receiving information? Who is responsible for filtering out bias information, the media or the people that choose to use that medium? Does this go hand in hand with a right of education and a right to learn how to think critically? As mentioned earlier, some people in China don’t see the benefit of free media, have their rights been violated? To what extent would we be pushing a ‘western’ education on different cultures?

  2. I particularly like number 3, because, despite the huge variety of corporate media organizations, they often follow a very particular kind of narrative which defeats the whole purpose of diversity.

  3. We require and create open, diverse media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life.
    Similar to acellidiaz I agree with the statement that I feel like this hasn’t been phrased correctly. This would be the ideal situation, yet unfortunately there is a difference in the ideal and the realistic.

    The recent election of Francois Hollande in France; The “Président Normale”, however in my opinion he’s “Président irréaliste” was a clear sign of society not making a well informed decision eventhough information was widely available. I am of the opinion that the vote was more an anti-Sarkozy vote, rather then a vote based on a political agenda. Policies attempting to make France the only country in the EU to decrease its pension age and where on earth are you going to get 60000 ‘good ‘teachers from to help substandard schools are simply unrealistic and only takes common sense to realize that this will not be obtainable without causing further problems.

    I don’t think we will ever be able to make well informed decisions as a whole society. Simply as educational boundaries exist and interest levels with politics vary. This is an ideal that we can strive to achieve but will never be exactly the case.

  4. I, personally agree with the principle, however after a semester in China I came across a view where people do not find it necessary to have the right o participate in political life. Moreover, they believe that free media is harmful for their reality. I wonder what could said in response to that?

    • Yes I agree with this. In China people are not subjected to the same degree of freedom of media or democracy and as a result the general public do not feel the necessity of it. However, China has limited certain restraints such as allowing more people to use the internet. Of course, the information is highly censored but even still there are approximately 500 million people online and this is the first generation to experience this extent of social freedom; there exists a freedom of expression that you don’t get in other forms of media. This leads to higher expectations and even exposes corruption, putting a lot of pressure on the government. Moreover, it forces me to raise the question: is it harmful or not? Will it ruin or benefit the state of China?

      • Also even though the public may not believe in free media to the fullest extent it is crucial to mention this point: in my opinion it is not so much the government people are dissatisfied with, rather the corruption and the inability to actually reach vital information. Moreover, the more China develops, the more these problems will surface and the government will be forced to deal with them. There is hence a paradox: people may not feel the necessity of complete freedom, yet they want a system without corruption and without censorship. Is this possible?

  5. We require and create open, diverse media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life.
    I personally do not disagree with the essence of this principle but with the way how it has been stated. I could be able to stand against a principle that in execution will be ideal for the development of a representative democracy. It is within a democratic context how I understood it.
    Nevertheless, I have my doubts in how we are actually able to create new diverse media and how we are able to “fully” participate in political life. When creating new diverse media, I believe it is important to take into account the eminent relationship that exists between power and knowledge. Although we live in a highly complex and globalized world, in which billions of persons are interconnected through different kinds of media, I am very sceptic in the power that independent media has. And with this term I refer to all type of media that is not predominant: social networks, blogs, and home-made videos, among others. Some people may say that great and recent movements of change, such as the Arab Spring, emerged thanks to the immediateness and spread-capacity of social networks like Twitter or Facebook. However, the final international image of the revolutions, the words that mostly ignited global debate about what was going on in the Middle East, was lastly framed by big TV Networks such as Al-Jazeera, BBC and CNN. These three mainstream media giants, with their own independent interests, certainly chose what images and what comments to broadcast. Together with others, they constitute some kind of oligopoly when we talk about accessing to information about what is going on in the world. It is very hard for me to completely trust in their intentions of delivering the Truth –if there’s actually one.
    I believe that there is actually little possibility for an independent or rising media network to win a space in the media scene. Taking an example of my home country, Venezuela, where there is a clear polarisation of the media, the chances for a more “plural”, “balanced” or “impartial” media network for winning the attention of the public are minimal. For instance, I can compare the success of two relatively new websites. The first one is called redigital.tv and was founded by the family of a former independent candidate for Mayor of Caracas, the capital. The second one is lapatilla.com which was founded by the former director of now the biggest TV channels that opposes to the current government, Globovision. Both were founded around 2008 and 2010. Today, lapatilla.com counts with one million followers in Twitter: a figure that cannot be compared to the amount of followers of redigital.tv. When speaking to my friends, lapatilla.com belongs already to the common word: everybody reads their sometimes vain and superficial articles about sex, celebrities or astrology, together with the usual portion of politics. This is different from redigital.tv, that not only does not count with the same amount of attention –for not a lot of people know about it-, but it still lacks clients for advertisement in their website. Obviously, the founder of lapatilla.com, Alberto Federico Ravell, counts with a wider range of contacts in the business because of its former role in Globovision. At the end, the media works like the market. Only the top dogs survive.
    Regarding the last part of the principle and possibility for citizens to make well-informed decisions and fully participate in political life; I find it difficult to not relate it with the principles that define a democracy. For what do we mean by “full” participation in political life? Is the principle referring to a direct democracy, where active citizens that dedicate their lives to comprehend the characteristics of their society or nation in order to give a strongly based argument or vote? Or does it refer to a representative democracy, where the citizen, among many of his lifetime activities, dedicates a portion of his time to think about politics and about the best way to live together in society? When I read the principle, I understood it under the principles of a direct democracy. Which in modern times, when we have states of millions of people, I believe it is impossible.
    But if it actually referred to the second interpretation, how is it possible to “fully” participate in political life if this is not the priority of all the citizens? What are the limits that contain the meaning of this adverb? Is it “fully participating” just watching the news and vote for a representative that takes care of making political decisions? If this is the case, then yes. I would agree. Otherwise, I believe the principle needs clarification. I would put it this way:
    “We require and attempt to create open, diverse media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate as much as it is possible in political life”

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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