Holocaust denial is immoral, offensive, disturbing, and deeply wrong. Within the community of people who agree with the preceding sentence, there seems a school of thought that says that the best way to right that wrong is to eliminate platforms on which Holocaust deniers can write and publish their drivel.
This debate came to a head this week, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made some truly unfortunate statements about Holocaust denial and the role that Facebook should and should not play in limiting this discourse.
Zuckerberg, ironically in a comment about people who say the wrong thing, explained that “I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong,” and because “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO, was quick to point out where he went wrong, telling CNN that “Holocaust denial is a willful, deliberate and longstanding deception tactic by anti-Semites.”
Greenblatt is right, of course, but this does not mean that the best course of action is banishing Holocaust denial to the darkest corners of the internet, private silos in which this sort of nefarious speech can fester and grow. That would actually be exactly the wrong approach to take. Sunshine, as Justice Brandeis put it many years ago, is the best disinfectant, and should be the course of treatment offered here.
In recent days and weeks, I’ve learned that the internet is a place that will eat you up if you don’t grab every opportunity to be as explicit as possible. In that vein, I think it’s important that I say clearly, and overtly, that I find Holocaust denial to be pernicious and malevolent. I also think that the way to cure the world of its presence is by allowing the most disgusting, most objectionable sentiments related to the denial to be aired out in the public square.
All four of my grandparents were born in Europe. One fled from Berlin, another from Vienna, both in the 1930s, ultimately finding refuge in this country. One survived several ghettos, forced labor camps, and concentration camps, before ultimately being liberated from Bergen-Belsen by the British Army on April 15, 1945. The last was a chaplain in the British Army who dedicated himself to helping survivors — not unlike the one he met in Bergen-Belsen, with whom he would ultimately marry and raise a family. All this to say that this issue is a personal one for me, and one I take exceptionally seriously.
It’s for that reason that I feel so strongly about how we can best work to eliminate, or at the very least, minimize Holocaust denial. That won’t happen by pretending it doesn’t exist, or by squirreling it away from the public. If a doctor were facing a disease, he would be at a significant disadvantage in fighting it if he did not know what its symptoms and causes were.
Those of us who feel passionate about this issue and who want to increase Holocaust awareness and education need to realize that this fight follows the same logic: if we do not know what deniers are saying (and we wouldn’t, if we successfully ban them from every mainstream social media site) we cannot fight their rhetoric. We would not even realize that there is rhetoric against which we need to fight.
What’s become clear this year is how the people who care about Holocaust education need more information, not less. A devastating study released this year documented just how little Americans know about the Holocaust. One key takeaway: more than half of American millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is. The bottom line: the survivor generation is dying, and if we want to get serious about Holocaust education, we need to know not just what the average American does and does not know, but what the deniers are saying.
None of this is to say that Facebook and other social media platforms shouldn’t also make decisions on a case-by-case basis. If David Duke, or someone like him, continues to spew anti-Semitic rhetoric and language that could reasonably be interpreted as a call to violence, it is not unwise to remove him from the site. But having a wholesale policy against Holocaust denial is a mistake.
The people saying so the loudest should be those of us who care deeply about Holocaust education, and about enlightening those who are in the dark — willfully or not — about the actions of the Nazis. If we are convinced about our point, about our knowledge, and about our history, we should relish the opportunity to say so, to debate, and to demonstrate our correctness in the public square.
Beyond all this, lies a question of free speech and the policing of ideas — even terrible ones. Should it be the position of Facebook to censor content — non-violent content — that appears on a person’s individual page? If a person has said something wrong, if he has lied, if he has offended or misconstrued reality, but has not made objective threats, is it moral, immoral, or neutral for Facebook to take action?
The reason it’s easy to draw a line at overt calls to violence is that it’s black and white. It’s clear and objective. To some extent, therefore, it is the only line that should be drawn. Everything else lends itself to subjective interpretation and shades of grey.
The best way to eliminate bad speech is to let it have its day in the sun — and to fight it with better speech. Holocaust denial is wrong. Let’s do the hard work of confronting it and combatting it instead of lazily pretending it does not exist.