Phrases like post-truth and fake news are closely associated with Brexit and Trump, but the antecedent of modern disinformation is Holocaust denial.
Holocaust denial is as much about the tarnishing of expertise as it is an anti-semitic conspiracy theory. But a conspiracy can only succeed if people believe that established historical facts obscure what is ‘really’ true, that there exists a vast web of plots and evidence that has been kept hidden from the public by a shadowy elite. The belief in any conspiracy theory – the moon landings were faked, 9/11 was an inside job, Obama is secretly a Muslim – begins with denialism: the extreme relativism of truth.
Deborah Lipstadt shows in Denying the Holocaust that denialism is the attempt to denude truth and knowledge of all value by creating a climate where any proposition must be treated as equal to any other, regardless of how dangerous or outlandish. This is not to say the record of human knowledge is immune from new interpretations (this is the whole project of history), but we must not confuse genuine intellectual enquiry with the refutation of proven facts. This is when prejudice becomes a substitute for evidence and irrational fears are championed for their ‘say it like it is’ bluntness.
A pillar of denialism is the belief that all facts are contestable and any attempt to discredit someone’s ‘side’ of an argument are attacks on freedom of speech. The power of such ultra-relativism allows Ann Coulter and Alex Jones to spread their monstrous lies that school massacres and scenes of crying immigrant children separated from their parents are hoaxes, fabrications, scripted events played out by ‘crisis actors’. It allows useful idiots on the Left to say reports of anti-semitism in Labour are exaggerations, distortions, lies, all in the service of attacking the saintly Jeremy Corbyn. And it treats all examples of racism in society, media and politics as assertions of ‘western liberal values’. As Donald Trump recently said to a cheering crowd, ‘What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening’.
The director of the Academy of Ideas Claire Fox recently appeared on Newsnight to discuss Boris Johnson’s racist caricature of Muslim women as ‘letter boxes’ and ‘bank robbers’. Fox defended Johnson by repeating the tiresome claim that a general feeling exists in society where ‘there are certain issues that are verboten, off limits’, issues that ‘you can’t discuss’. The issue at hand was immigration and integration. Not a week goes by when immigration doesn’t feature in the media. And yet anti-immigration arguments are always prefaced with a triumphalist flourish that the liberal censors are being defied.
Challenges to racism are always – always – overreactions according to denialists. Fox went on to defend Johnson in an article for Quillette (yet again bravely defying those omnipresent liberal censors) that the right of a powerful politician to attack a minority group in a national newspaper was nothing less than a battle for freedom of speech: ‘What is at stake here is the freedom for the rest of us – regardless of our religious or political implications – to speak, argue, and worship freely – without being horse-whipped into silence as heretics’. To claim that anti-Muslim arguments are being smuggled out to the public in samizdat fashion is an absurd claim when Rod Liddle can publish an article saying there is not enough Islamaphobia in the Conservative party. But the elision of racial prejudice and freedom of speech allows denialists to make the former a rational response to what they see as attacks on western values. In this case, we are told a women’s choice to wear a garment in public without fear of being physically or verbally abused is considered of equal value as the right of a narcissist and liar to treat them with utter contempt in order to further his political career.
The libertarian publication Spiked relentlessly pushes the line that concerns about immigration and race are censored by a ‘liberal elite’ (a term with echoes of the anti-Semitic ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ slur common in the thirties). Liberal elite has become a permanent fixture in our national conversation to describe anyone who rightly warns about the dangers of legitimising racism as a political principle, or indeed anyone who calls out racism when they see it in public life. It affords the status of independent thinker to those who seek power by distorting the facts to monetise their hatred.
The political right has been cultivating a culture war on university campuses for some time. Today’s students are snowflakes obsessed with ‘identity politics’. In contrast, the identities of white, wealthy and privately educated people are the normative standard we all must aspire to. But despite what the Toby Youngs of this world will tell you, it is not the purpose of universities to create spaces where people compete for attention by being deliberately provocative or offensive. If I want to talk about race or gender I do not need to insult my students to prove how committed I am to free speech.
The truth is far more interesting and complex than denialists would have us believe. The acquisition of knowledge requires hard study, research, questioning, experimentation; a student’s opinion is only important inasmuch as it relates to the truth. If saying that there are certain opinions that have no academic credibility whatsoever and do not need to be debated makes me elitist then I am a proud card carrying member. But to say it makes me a censor of free speech deliberately distorts the purpose of education.
Invoking free speech as a defence of all arguments gives racists like Steve Bannon and Katie Hopkins a veneer of intellectual credibility. We must always remember that racism and anti-semitism are not just other points of view. Anyone who claims otherwise has no interest in the truth. But if disreputable figures like Andrew Wakefield and Tommy Robinson can be rehabilitated on the grounds that all ideas are equal then why shouldn’t David Irving be given a platform to spout his lies?
In a political culture where alternative fact count for more than mere facts, I am very concerned we – academics, politicians, journalists, the public – have all adopted ultra relativist positions as a way of coping with the modern informational environment. The proliferation of information the internet gives us access to may paradoxically make the truth more difficult to determine.
What feels true is becoming more important than what is true in public discourse. This is the route to denialism and it must be avoided if we want to defend the liberal, tolerant society Corbyn, Fox, Liddle, Young and Johnson claim to cherish. Real truth is eternal, not relative. It is not a sign of intelligence to defend an argument purely on the basis of one’s right to say it. As Deborah Lipstadt put it, everyone is entitled to their opinions but not all opinions are equal.