Tag Archives: Holocaust Denial

The adversary paradigm

In “The Adversary Paradigm,” (1983) Janice Moulton challenged the claim that the ideal way to examine a view is to subject it to adversarial challenges in the form of  counterexamples. Roughly, I assert p, you assert ~p in an attempt to challenge p.

Among Moulton’s problems with this view are these. First, it’s epistemically limited. There are lots of ways a view can go wrong, not all of them, or even the most salient ones, are revealed by this method.

Second, it tends to institutionalize a kind of intellectual trolling culture. Since to challenge its view is to assert its opposite, we need to refresh the pool of people who will play this role, even if their criticisms have little plausibility. So, for instance, do we need to host Holocaust deniers in a history of the holocaust course? Does answering their charges do much to improve our knowledge of the Holocaust? What’s more likely, is that it obscures the many actually controversial elements to the study of the Holocaust and it gives greater plausibility to a fringe view (among other reasons).

This danger, I think, lurks behind the idea that we need to invite controversial people for the sole reason that they’re controversial. Here’s this from Inside Higher Ed:

As movements to protest and silence controversial campus speakers have become common, the president of a new Harvard University student group intends to “saturate” the campus with those types of talks — to challenge established ideologies that he said administrators there blatantly promote.

Open Campus Initiative was organized this year, its president, Harvard sophomore Conor Healy, said in an interview Friday.

Already, the group of roughly 25 students, Healy said, has secured commitments from two right-leaning, controversial figures to address the campus. One, writer Charles Murray, made headlines in March after his lecture at Middlebury College was drowned out by student chants, forcing him to stop. Murray is often accused of promoting racist ideals. Open Campus Initiative has not yet pegged a day for his talk.

The pick of Murray was deliberate, Healy said. He was horrified by the disruptions at Middlebury and said he wanted to prove Harvard could serve as a role model institution for free expression.

“Most of the community wants to hear from the people we’re inviting, they want to critique them, ask them hard questions, and they’re willing to be convinced,” Healy said. “If they’re not convinced, their perception of the truth can be reinforced by the opposing view.”

Free speech rights and all. But this is college, the challenge in college is to bring students (and others) up to speed with debates among academics. This naturally will not include everyone and every view. The challenge then, for controversial speakers, is to show that they’re part of a live controversy, and not instead just people who are very good at hanging on to discredited views.

Moulton herself was not categorical in her rejection of the adversary paradigm. The problem, she maintained, was considering it to be the ideal of intellectual engagement.

 

Godwin’s Lawyer

This op-ed in the Washington Post by Walter Reich, of George Washington University, has to be one of the more baffling things I've read in a while–and I'm in the middle of grading papers.  The argument, in a nutshell, seems to go like this: While some anti-Semites used to deny the reality of the Holocaust, some of them now admit it, only now they use it to describe either (1) what ought to happen to the State of Israel; or (2) what the State of Israel is perpetrating upon the Palestinians.  While perhaps hyperbolic, (2) is not necessarily anti-Semitic, as it is motivated perhaps by genuine concern and frustration over the plight of the Palestinian civilians.  Here's what he says:

Are all those who have accused Israel of being a Nazi state anti-Semites? Hardly. There's genuine anger in the Muslim world, as well as in Europe and elsewhere, about Israel's actions in Gaza. The suffering is terrible. So are the images of devastation Israel left behind. And there are also plenty of people who are angry at Israel because it stands for the reviled United States.

But the reality is that much of the vitriol directed at Israel has indeed been spouted by anti-Semites. Not only have they hurled the Nazi canard at Israel, they've expressed clear anti-Semitism — some of it openly violent or even eliminationist. The pro-Israel but reliable Middle East Media and Research Institute has been documenting anti-Semitism on Palestinian television for years, including calls for the murder of Jews. It reports that, the day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, one Egyptian cleric admitted on an Islamist TV channel that the Holocaust had happened — and added that he hoped that one day Muslims would do to the Jews what the Germans had done to them. To demonstrate what he had in mind, according to the institute, he showed footage of heaps of Jewish corpses being bulldozed into pits.

So the real issue is not the Holocaust denial or hyperbolic invocation, it's the violent eliminationist anti-Semitism, which uses the Holocaust, among other things, as an example of what to do.  Yet, while admitting that such comparisons are not anti-Semitic or even wrong, Reich still insists:

In designating an International Holocaust Remembrance Day back in 2005, the U.N. General Assembly acted with noble intentions, even if parts of the world body still aim to delegitimize Israel. Such commemorations help the world understand that the goal of the Holocaust was the annihilation of an entire people — and help them appreciate the vast differences between that event and, for example, the war in Gaza. But even as the Holocaust has been increasingly acknowledged and explained, it also has been increasingly used as a cudgel to beat Jews and the Jewish state. 

If Reich had wanted to make that last point–that the Holocaust is some kind of illegitimate cudgel, to crazy or hyperbolic to be anything but anti-Semitism–then he'd have to make an entirely different argument.  His beef here is with eliminationist anti-Semites, not Godwin's law breakers