Sunday, March 15, 2009

The New Heresies: the battle for free speech.

Alexander Cockburn,
Claire Fox,
Mick Hume,
Arthur Versluis

Battle of Ideas: The New Heresies at the 2007 Battle of Ideas conference hosted by the Institute of Ideas.

'It is the customary fate of new truths,' wrote TH Huxley in 1881, 'to begin as heresies and end as superstitions'. His sentiment is increasingly pertinent today. At the dawn of the 21st century, Western societies have rediscovered the charge of heresy as a means of silencing those who question prevailing cultural orthodoxies. The label of 'denial' - applied with ever-greater promiscuity - expresses the illiberal notion that contentious issues are beyond debate. Healthy heresy - described in more enlightened times as critical thinking, sceptical enquiry, or even free speech - is again being hunted down.

The presence of healthy doubt is being ironed out by a demand for moral certainties, forcing open debate on the back foot. The notion of Holocaust denial, now raised to the status of secular blasphemy, has been revised and adopted for the modern era. The European Union has recently outlawed genocide denial; this means anyone convicted of denying the genocide of the Jews in Europe before and during the Second World War, or the mass killings in Bosnia and Rwanda, will face a prison term ranging from one to three years. Other 'thought-crimes' - whilst not against the law - also invoke the pernicious denial label, most obviously the accusation of 'climate-change denial' attributed to anyone who does not wholeheartedly embrace global warming orthodoxies.

If we stigmatise those who question 'self-evident' truths, how will interrogative debate survive? Will this modern, secular inquisition and the creation of new taboos promote a narrow conformism in public life? At a festival which adopts the slogan - free speech allowed - this final keynote discussion will examine the root causes of such censorious trends, and will investigate possibilities for re-constituting heresy in a more positive light, so that free-thinking can be encouraged rather than policed. About 90 minutes.

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