‘It is the customary fate of new truths,’ wrote TH Huxley in 1881, ‘to begin as heresies and end as superstitions’. His sentiment is increasingly pertinent today. At the dawn of the 21st century, Western societies have rediscovered the charge of heresy as a means of silencing those who question prevailing cultural orthodoxies. The label of ‘denial’ – applied with ever-greater promiscuity – expresses the illiberal notion that contentious issues are beyond debate. Healthy heresy – described in more enlightened times as critical thinking, sceptical enquiry, or even free speech – is again being hunted down.
The presence of healthy doubt is being ironed out by a demand for moral certainties, forcing open debate on the back foot. The notion of Holocaust denial, now raised to the status of secular blasphemy, has been revised and adopted for the modern era. The European Union has recently outlawed genocide denial; this means anyone convicted of denying the genocide of the Jews in Europe before and during the Second World War, or the mass killings in Bosnia and Rwanda, will face a prison term ranging from one to three years. Other ‘thought-crimes’ – whilst not against the law – also invoke the pernicious denial label, most obviously the accusation of ‘climate-change denial’ attributed to anyone who does not wholeheartedly embrace global warming orthodoxies.
If we stigmatise those who question ‘self-evident’ truths, how will interrogative debate survive? Will this modern, secular inquisition and the creation of new taboos promote a narrow conformism in public life? At a festival which adopts the slogan - free speech allowed - this final keynote discussion will examine the root causes of such censorious trends, and will investigate possibilities for re-constituting heresy in a more positive light, so that free-thinking can be encouraged rather than policed.
|Professor Arthur Versluis|
professor of American studies, Michigan State University; author, The New Inquisitions: Heretic-hunting and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Totalitarianism
editor-at-large, online magazine spiked; author, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?
journalist; editor, CounterPunch; co-author, End Times: The Death of the Fourth Estate?
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
|Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive|
|Amol Rajan columnist, Independent titles; advisor to Evgeny Lebedev; author, Twirlymen: the unlikely history of cricket’s greatest spin doctors|
|recommended by spiked|
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"A really valuable and stimulating event."
Prof Michael Reiss, Director of Education, Royal Society