21st Century Heresy Hunting

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EXCERPT: Contemporary society is more comfortable with values in the plural than with a value that everyone can embrace. Instead of “the truth”, society prefers to lecture about truths. The celebration of non-judgmentalism and difference can be interpreted as a self-conscious attempt to avoid having to make moral judgments. On most issues we are free to pick and choose our beliefs and affiliations. Educators continually inform university students – especially in the social sciences and humanities – that there is no such thing as a wrong or right answer. Instead of an explicit moral code, Western society seeks to police behaviour through a diffuse rhetoric – such as appropriate and inappropriate behaviour – that avoids confronting fundamental existential questions.

Paradoxically, the absence of moral clarity encourages an illiberal climate of intolerant behaviour. [...] It is a sign of the time that very few people questioned the right of the French state to pronounce which interpretation of the past was legitimate and which was a crime. Yet the implication of authorising the state to possess the power to dictate what people should believe and what constitutes the historical truth represents a fundamental threat to freedom. The very idea of toleration evolved because far-sighted people understood that the meaning of the truth and the true religion was contested and ought to be a matter for individual reflection. From the standpoint of tolerance, truths – historical or otherwise – are discovered by independent thinking citizens learning from one another in the course of a debate. They should not be laid down in a decree of the state. No doubt those who deny the Holocaust personify the most backward and vile human sentiments but to ban their ideas is far more dangerous than the impact of their speech. Worse still, the suggestion that society fears the claims of Holocaust deniers betrays an insecurity about its own ideas. By assuming the role of the censor it betrays its own democratic principles and risks losing the moral authority of its version of events....

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