It was recently announced that the federal government will pass a law (part of its larger budget bill) making it illegal to deny or downplay the Holocaust. Other countries, including Germany and France, have similar prohibitions on their books, but Canada’s legislation may not prove as beneficial as some imagine. Irwin Cotler, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance, said the new rules are needed because, in his words, “Holocaust denial and distortion constitute a cruel assault on memory, truth, and justice – an antisemitic libel to cover up the worst crime in history – and thereby a cruel and mocking rebuke to Holocaust survivors and their legacy.” Really? Let’s unpack this.
Leaving aside for a moment the implications of criminalizing any false or offensive statement (some people say the Earth is flat, which is false; some people find Lady Chatterley’s Lover offensive), the scheduled mandate against downplaying the Holocaust raises all sorts of concerns. “Downplaying” next to what? Car accidents? Factory farms? The impending zombie apocalypse? More contentiously, there are other historic atrocities whose statistics are in the same ballpark with the 6 million Jewish Europeans slaughtered by the Nazis: the African slave trade, the decimation of Aboriginal populations during the conquest of the Americas, the Ukrainian famines under Stalin, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and the Killing Fields of Cambodia’s Pol Pot. Each of those might be claimed – especially by descendants of the victims – to be as bad as or worse than the Holocaust, which could thus be taken as downplaying it. So if Canadian Natives or African Americans emphasize the suffering of their ancestors without acknowledging the suffering of anyone else, should we call the police? And what about the episode of Seinfeld where Jerry and his girlfriend Rachel make out at a screening of Schindler’s List? Is it now illegal to air that scene in Canada? Some people have likened masking and vaccination regulations to Hitler’s tyranny. I would say that’s overstated rhetoric; Irwin Cotler might say it’s a hate crime.
In other contexts, people who shut out contrarian views on topics sensitive to them have been dismissed as unreasonable, as well as undemocratic. You don’t want to hear alternative ideas about gender dysphoria or campus sexual assaults? Too bad, snowflake. Granted, the reality of the Final Solution (and anti-Semitism generally) is a lot more established than the modern concepts of transphobia or rape culture, but the point is, it’s better to air difficult assertions that can be refuted by the weight of evidence and argument than outlaw them so that they continue to fester. A public discourse where all voices are heard builds public confidence in whatever consensus finally emerges; a public discourse that silences the fringe nurtures a sense of community among the silenced and piques the curiosity of those who don’t get to hear.
The upcoming law against denial and downplaying will also specify that private conversations are exempt from its coverage. Again, though, the language is vague. What if the “private conversations” take place in a coffee shop, or through email? Might Starbucks or Google be busted for complicity if two individuals share illicit beliefs under their physical or virtual roofs? Any rule which can’t be effectively enforced, or which feeds the rulebreakers’ conceit of participating in a martyred underground (see Prohibition and the War on Drugs) ought to be reexamined by its proponents. A rule that can’t define its own terms, all the more: the nebulous notion of what constitutes an inadequate or inappropriate response to even an admitted truth is bound to be tested by someone in court, whether an alt-right provocateur, a free speech absolutist, or Jerry Seinfeld. For the Holocaust to remain meaningful to all Canadians, it can’t be so unique as to defy any comparison with anything else, or so untouchably separate it can’t be addressed with anything but approved reverence. But by the logic of this pernicious legislation, merely to learn about and to ponder dark, emotionally charged topics – of memory, truth, and justice, and of history, humanity, and evil – puts all Canadians at risk of being classed as thought criminals.