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The Australian Newspaper ran an article a couple of days ago about French government plans to ban denial of the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey) in 1915.

The Armenian genocide is controversial. The Armenians and their supporters believe that many, many Armenians were exterminated by the Ottomans and that this counts as genocide. The Turks and their supporters deny at the least that it was systematic policy of extermination (genocide). So there is debate about the historical facts, and, as is natural with genocides and national shame, is very heated.

I don’t know whether the Armenian genocide really happened. What concerns me is that the French government could ban an idea.  I realise it’s not just the Armenian genocide. Holocaust denial is also illegal in France. But they shouldn’t be.

Now some ideas should be fought, because they are wrong (like holocaust denial) and some ideas are even dangerous (like fascism). But making those ideas illegal is not the way to do it.

First of all, if you ban an idea, you actually shoot yourself in the foot. You prevent yourself from being able to articulate real reasons why the idea is wrong or dangerous. How can we explain to future generations who did not personally experience the horror of Nazism the problems with fascism if we do not find ways to argue against it. If there can be no defence of Nazism, we will make no defence of freedom.

Again, banning the idea promotes a conspiracy theory instead of squelching it. If we had the facts and the data to prove that the 1915 genocide happened, or that the Holocaust was a real event, then we could employ those facts. The fact that we hide behind government legislation instead of forwarding a real defence suggests that we have no defence. We are safer from bad ideas when we attack the idea, not criminalise the proponent.

The deeper, more philosophical problem with banning ideas instead of disproving them is that it promotes wrong perceptions of authority. The government has decided that this idea is wrong, or unhealthy, and the government will enforce this. But the government is not the proper authority on truth. The truth or value of an idea does not comes from the government, or from any other institution.  This is dangerous is because governments change and governments can get it wrong. If a modern government can ban fascism today, why can’t a future government ban democracy later?

No, governments do not establish truth, and therefore they should not patrol truth. Reality determines truth, and we discover reality through facts and reasoning. Therefore we should depend on these to silence the bad and the wrong ideas.

This can be uncomfortable. It can mean that ideas many find extremely painful, like the idea that the Armenians were not murdered en masse, get a lot of publicity or even acceptance. It can mean that we have to deal with political or social opponents whose philosophy we know is truly terrible, like fascists.

But to silence these ideologies by law is the lazy option, and an option which is opposed to truth and freedom. Which is ironic- it was our dedication to truth and freedom which led us to oppose ideas like fascism and genocide denial in the first place.

There is a thought which stops thought. That is the only thought which ought to be stopped.
-GK Chesterton