Monday, February 20, 2006

Jiminy Cricket wears a curly wig

In Austria, David Irving is sentenced to 3 years for denying the Holocaust in an interview 17 years ago. Since then, he's changed his mind:
"I said that then based on my knowledge at the time, but by 1991 when I came across the Eichmann papers, I wasn't saying that anymore and I wouldn't say that now," Irving told the court.

Even Deborah Lipstadt, who Irving tried to sue for libel in the UK in 2000, recognises the ridiculous of the situation:
"I am not happy when censorship wins, and I don't believe in winning battles via censorship... The way of fighting Holocaust deniers is with history and with truth"

Personally, as a commentator, I don't profess to have any historical knowledge on the matter. On this point, I freely admit to believing in something merely because others have told me about it. While I like to question assumptions, it would become rather silly to disbelieve everything and anything until I had verified it with my own eyes.

But I do indeed digress. Or do I? The question, then, is whether history is a science, or an art. The science of determining what has happened, or the art of maintaining an archive, and drawing links and lines of cause and effect through time. In the end, of course, it will be a bit of both - we need to establish truth, but we also need to understand where we have come from. The important point is to learn from our past.

But the concern here, legally speaking, is this split between the two - how much one can risk affronting emotion in the search for knowledge. Nobody argues with the idea that much of history is written by the winners, which is effectively another way of saying that history becomes what people want it to become. Memories are filled with soul, and our souls are generated from our memories.

I haven't time to delve to deeply into Irving's past, and his legal clashes with Lipstadt. If, as he says, he has changed his tune following his own, personal discovery of further "evidence", then he is acting as a scientist. Lipstadt is right to point out that this is a much preferred method of resolution than "simple" censorship.

Yet with the gradual onslaught of the psychological and juridical science domains, we are left increasingly with a view of the individual as an automata. We are painted as being rational and "free" so long as we remain on societal track. Our decisions are our own. But once we enter the justice system, quite often we lose this shield of perceived "freedom". Our actions are unhelpable, our motivations are driven by forces we cannot control, forces that exist naturally but that somehow occur outside of sense of "choice".

Increasingly, then, a single action is extrapolated into our mindset in totality. Pop Media amplifies this "dehumanisation", turning the middle aged man who accidentally catches sight of a 14-year-old girl in a short skirt into a raging paedophile. We have mastered the links between "effect" and "cause" and, because we have statistics to prove it, we believe the link and nothing more. Or less.

What are the implications for the idea of human fallibility, for occasional frailty? When we end up with a judicial system that becomes so keen to extract (penal) guilt from intention, and that loses the power to believe in the reversibility of the human "conscience"? If Irving is basing his opinion on what he knows, and changes his opinion accordingly, but still gets 3 years for what he now knows is wrong, where does that leave the rest of us? How can we even trust history so long as it has some emotional content to it?

Clay Shirky brought this up as the most dangerous idea for coming decades. Richard Veryard notices move from questioning to employability in education. Just how easy is it to forget that we may actually have some control over ourselves, and some say in the world we live in?

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