“Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion … but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain”, wrote John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty. Once again, men (and women) that claim allegiance to the idea of freedom of speech are asserting that a certain view is beyond the limits of free discussion and debate.
Of course this is a regular occurrence. But in the latest particular case, the men and woman are the députés of the National Assembly of France, and Nicholas Sarkozy. In January, the upper house of the French parliament approved a bill outlawing denial of the Armenian Genocide in 1915 by Turkey, at threat of a fine of up to 45,000 euros, and a year in prison. (It should be noted that at the time of this article going to print, the law has been put on hold due to potential constitutional issues, with it’s fate unclear)
Unsurprisingly, the passing of the ‘anti-denial’ bill provoked a furious reaction from Turkey, with ambassadors withdrawn, and contemplations of air space access being restricted. Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan has claimed that it is undermines freedom of speech, while the foreign minister has accused it of violating the values of the French Revolution. Such claims are hypocritical from the Turkish government, as stating the genocide did happen in the Kemalist Republic is also punishable by law, but the sentiment expressed by the Turkish Government (however artificial and opportunistic) is true.
Most historians agree that the mass killing of Armenians was genocide. There is clear evidence of an attempt by the Turkish authorities to systematically destroy the Armenian population of Anatolia. However, despite the historical truth of genocide, this proposed law remains a violation of free speech.
Some have attempted to claim that denying genocide does not fall under free speech. It is freedom of speech with a ‘but…’ attached to it. Criminal Defense lawyer Mark Geragos told ABC news that “We have an expression in America: Your freedom of speech ends when you yell fire in a crowded theater. There are some things that are just not covered in freedom of speech, the denial of the first genocide of the 20th century clearly falls within that”. How exactly untruthful or questionable nationalist history is comparable to causing a stampede is not clear. What is clear is Geragos’ failure to understand the first amendment of his own constitution. The right to freedom of speech does not exclude views that are wrong, or reprehensible.
The importance of free speech, however, is not just a moral argument. While it is morally wrong to punish someone for a view they hold, the importance of free speech is more than that. Freedom of speech allows us to be sure that what we think we know to be true is actually true. As Mill noted:
“…the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.”
Even though we may be fairly convinced of the Armenian genocide, only when we have been exposed to any supposed evidence to challenge this, and have clashed with those of other views, can we be as certain as possible of the truth. To quote Mill yet again, “if even the Newtonian philosophy were not permitted to be questioned, mankind could not feel as complete assurance of its truth as they now do. The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded”. If we are truly confident of something being true, it should be allowed to stand up to scrutiny and debate. If the truth is not allowed to face scrutiny and questioning, so we can reaffirm it as true, it can easily become a stale orthodoxy.
If the French government really were certain of the Armenian genocide happening, they would allow those who think otherwise to challenge this. However, the motivation seems less to do with establishing a historical truth, and more to do with winning Armenian votes in the 2012 presidential election.