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"Why I Will Not Debate Holocaust Deniers,"
by Prof. Sanford Pinsker

"I get more than my fair share of invitations to speak out 
about such hot-button issues as affirmative action, academic 
feminism, and cultural studies.  And whenever possible, I think 
it important to put my best two cents on the table.  Why so?  
Because ideas of this sort need to be aired out in what John 
Stuart Mill called "the marketplace of ideas" -- and this 
activity, if it is to warrant serious attention, necessarily 
means the full spectrum of opinion.

"...Why, then, won't I debate Holocaust deniers, and why 
was I so upset when the _College Reporter_ at Franklin and 
Marshall in Lancaster, PA, last month ran an ad from the 
Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust.  The ad offered hard 
cash to anybody who would set up a debate between an open anti-
Semitic group that passes itself off as revisionist historians 
and the Anti-Defamation League.  After all, given my commitment 
to much of what Mill has to say in "On Liberty," isn't it true 
that all ideas, including bad ones, deserve a hearing?

"A distinction between free speech and debate may help to 
clarify any position, for a wide variety of reasons, including my 
sense that the First Amendment matters.  I am uncomfortable 
joining those who would censor repugnant ideas.  I feel that 
driving unacceptable thought underground is neither good in itself
nor will it effectively put hatemongers out of business.

"But if it's true that I can choose not to read material 
that I would defend if it were threatened by censorship, it's 
even truer that I can, indeed, should refuse an invitation to 
"debate" groups more interested in spreading their vicious lies 
than in pursuing the truth.

"A debate worthy of the name implies that there are many 
aspects of a given subject, and that honorable people can differ 
sharply about why one idea has more merit than another.  This is 
decidedly not the case with those who deny that the Holocaust 
happened.  It did happen, and the evidence is overwhelming.  
Therefore, to act if this is the real question, one in the same 
league as other controversial, debatable questions, is nothing 
short of an obscenity.

"I worry that Holocaust deniers, in one form or another, 
will always be with us, but I worry even more that college 
students will be increasingly vulnerable to their slickly 
packaged ads.  After all, as the last of the survivors die off 
and the Holcaust itself recedes from collective memory, many 
things are possible, including the "revisionist history" that 
hatemongers peddle.  This thought makes me shiver:  why?  Because 
such mantras as "a tolerance for all people" and an "openness to 
all ideas" from a simplistic way of understanding and confronting 
a complicated, often ugly world.

"To know when a person is speaking rot (and dangerous rot 
to boot) is perhaps the most important indicator of a liberal 
education and our best guarantee of a humane society.  But I 
would argue, to distinguish good from the bad, the noble from the 
base, one needs a moral center -- and that is the place where 
relativism gone amuck sells our students short.  Some ideas are, 
in fact, better than other ones; and some ideas (totalitarianism 
for example) cannot be separated from the oceans of blood spilled 
in their name.

"Absolutely Unworthy Ad

"I was embarrassed that the _College Reporter_ saw fit to 
publish a scurrilous, absolute unworthy ad.  That it did so 
during a week when many students were grappling with the 
difficult issues of bigotry and hatred only made matters worse; 
the ad appeared the same week that hate graffiti ... had been 
scrawled across a dormitory wall.  At the same time, however, I 
continue to believe that education happens when people begin to 
question their formerly unquestioned beliefs.  That, I hope, will 
happen here, not only to the _College Reporter_ staff, but also 
to those who read the ad as just another invitation to a debate.

"I do not debate Holocaust deniers because that would give 
a measure of respectability to their paranoid, ugly, and 
dangerous vision of how the world works.

"True enough, they have a "position" -- namely, that 
everything is a Zionist conspiracy -- but that is quite different 
from an argument, "just as debate," as I've defined the term is 
quite different from merely having an opinion.  In short, we are 
not talking about ideas in contention, but, rather, a set of 
facts being denied by people with no interest in the truth.

"Suppose that the _College Reporter_ were asked to run an 
ad by a group seeking a debate about slavery in America, their 
point being that it never happened, and that the gruesome 
pictures of lynchings were faked.  Would the editors run that ad 
also, or would they chuck this particular obscenity in the waste 
basket where it surely belongs?  Or would they insist that the 
"free speech" demands that they run any ad heaved their way as 
long as it is accompanied by a check?

"Exposing the Charlatans

"Other college newspapers have wrestled with the mischief 
of Holocaust deniers.  Some, to their credit, have stood tall and 
said "No." in thunder.  Often, they went on to explain their 
position in opinion pieces that exposed the deniers as the 
dangerous charlatans they are.

"The result in such cases was a more richly informed 
campus community and exemplified one of the reasons we have 
campus newspapers in the first place.  In this sense, the 
_College Reporter_'s staff missed a great opportunity.  I'm sorry 
about that, but I take a measure of solace in adding my few 
paragraphs to the many that concerned students have felt 
compelled to write.

"In the final analysis, good and evil are not merely 
abstractions but palpable occasions in which some become 
murderers and some victims.  On such matters, college students 
need to speak out with head and heart -- and especially so when 
those who would deny the Holocaust try to elbow their messages 
into the pages of a college newspaper.

---------

"Prof. Sanford Pinsker is Shadek Professor of Humanities at 
Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA.  The article 
first appeared in _The Dispatch_, the college paper."

                        Work Cited

Pinsker, Sanford. "Why I Will Not Debate Holocaust Deniers," in
Martyrdom and Resistance, vol. 25, no. 5 (May-June 1999), pp. 12-13. 
[Ellipses in original.]


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