What Genocide Deniers and Their Would Be Censors Share

By Wendy Kaminer      

        I can’t say I’m surprised by the enraged comments on my post on the Armenian genocide debate, below.  I criticized the decision to boycott an ADL anti-bias program because ADL president Abe Foxman belatedly called the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians “tantamount to genocide,” and I questioned the wisdom of providing reparations to people whose distant descendents were the victims of genocide, or other state sanctioned crimes.  So naturally, some readers accuse me of being a genocide denier or simply of bias against Armenians.  I was unsurprised by any of this because I wrote about the ADL/ Armenian genocide fracas after hearing the ADL hysterically associated with hate mongering and tolerance for atrocities, simply because Foxman called the slaughter of Armenians “tantamount to genocide,” instead of emphatically denouncing it as a genocide. 

        But, as I also observed, there was some justice in Foxman’s vilification, since he has shown so little tolerance for the right to hear from anti-zionists as well as anti-Semites, not to mention Holocaust deniers.  Consider his reaction to Columbia University’s decision to invite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at a university forum.  “It is inappropriate and a perversion of the concept of freedom of speech," Foxman declared, leaving us to wonder precisely what the “concept of freedom of speech” entails, if not the right to hear controversial and even hateful speech.  We don’t need a concept of free speech to ensure the right to engage uncontroversial and inoffensive speakers, or those approved by the ADL. 

        Of course, Foxman was not alone in protesting the decision to allow Columbia students and faculty to hear Ahmadinejad (who was vigorously questioned and harshly criticized by Columbia President Lee Bollinger.) Protesters gathered outside Columbia, exercising their own speech rights while, in some instances, criticizing the decision to honor the rights of people who gathered to hear the Iranian president.  "
This isn't just a matter of free speech, it's a matter of hate speech," an associate dean at the Jewish Theological Seminary explained predictably.  Protesters also gathered outside the United Nations, where New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn declared, “We’re here to send a message that there is never a reason to give a hate monger an open stage.” 
        Some people instinctively understand the virtues of free speech.  One Columbia junior said she supported Columbia "for bringing him here.  It’s a forum. It’s not like Columbia is endorsing him.  He’s the president of a nation and should be allowed to speak.” Others who instinctively embrace a distinction between free speech and hate speech may not be persuaded by any logical arguments debunking it. As Glenn Greenwald observes in Salon, “there is not much new worth saying about the ‘debate’ over whether Columbia should have invited Ahmadinejad to speak. People either believe in the value of having academic institutions be a venue for airing all viewpoints or they do not.”              

         So I’ll simply point out the similarities between people who demand the censorship of "hate speech" on university campuses, (and elsewhere,) members of the Armenian community today who brook not the slightest equivocation about the moral imperative to label them victims of genocide, and Turkish officials who recently tried to ban a conference on the Armenian genocide question.  Obviously one person’s hate speech is another person’s truth. 

        I’m not suggesting that facts don't matter and all truth is relative.  Indeed, the more you believe that facts matter, the more you believe in the power of reason and evidence, the more you believe - or should believe - in free speech.  People who put their faith in facts should be prepared to debate them.  For those of us without a direct line to God, truth is a product of argument, not revelation.

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