Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Truth of Lies

About a week and a half or so ago. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was being interviewed and along the way, he said the following:

I find that [Holocaust denial] deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong, but I think-
At which point, interviewer Kara Swisher interrupted to say:
In the case of the Holocaust deniers, they might be, but go ahead.
The next day, there was an article, Mark Zuckerberg Is Doubly Wrong About Holocaust Denial, on The Atlantic. In it, Yair Rosenberg says the following:
For one, surely spreading hateful misinformation about the Holocaust—designed to mislead the masses and undermine societal awareness of historic anti-Semitic prejudice—constitutes “trying to organize harm.” Moreover, even if we accept Zuckerberg’s questionable claim that some deny the Holocaust out of ignorance rather than malice, this does not absolve Facebook of responsibility for uncritically hosting and spreading that content.
Both of these appear to be based on an idea that has become so widely held that neither Ms. Swisher or Mr. Rosenberg bother to offer any support of it: That none of the people who promote Holocaust denial on the Web genuinely believe what they are saying. For me, this flies in the face of something that I believe is generally understood to be true: That a lie gains widespread (or even limited, actually) social currency only to the degree that it is inobvious that it is, in fact, a lie.

Given the fact that Mr. Rosenberg specifically describes the act of denying the reality of the Holocaust as "designed to mislead the masses," it might seem odd that he's apparently convinced that no one on Facebook has actually been mislead. But it strikes me that one could understand there to be a phenomenon that I'll call Holocaust Denial Skepticism, and that it has taken on characteristics of other purported conspiracies, such as Birtherism, Trutherism and Climate Skepticism; the understanding that the group of people who are actively involved in promoting the conspiracy and the group of people who are sincerely taken in by the conspiracy are mutually exclusive. It's as if, once someone becomes convinced that the Holocaust is actually a historical hoax, they are informed that no, it actually DID happen. Then, and only then, are they allowed to try to convince others that it was a hoax.

Part of this, I believe, comes from the idea that there is no rational reason to honestly disbelieve the Holocaust. And so all disbelief is really a form of motivated skepticism; someone who is free of any hint of antisemitism would simply realize the truth of the accepted historical narrative, and that would be the end of it. Holocaust denial, therefore, is an invention of the antisemitic mind, and an intentionally malicious one, at that.

But from an epistemological standpoint, that fails to take into account the degree to which most human understanding of the world is matter of faith. It is rarely, if ever, unambiguously obvious that any given event took place to a person who was not there to witness it themselves. It is our general belief in the truthfulness of other people that renders most of human history fact, rather than a random series of assertions that may, or may not, have any relationship to actual events. I am unable to say, with any certainty, that the world I currently inhabit is one that flows directly from the consequences of the events of, and surrounding, the Second World War, and thus, provides irrefutable proof that it happened, because there isn't an accessible parallel world, in which there was no Second World War, to compare it to.

But it's worth noting that this is a stance of epistemological skepticism, and is far from universal. What makes it interesting in this circumstance is how Mr. Zuckerberg's own skepticism concerning the origins of Holocaust denial translates into a kind of compassion for Holocaust deniers, even as it intersects with an important business consideration; namely that Mr. Zuckerberg does not was Facebook to be in the business of being an arbiter and protector of Honesty, given that he doesn't understand either himself or his organization as capable of knowing someone's inner world to a degree that would allow them to effectively police that.

Ms. Swisher and Mr. Rosenberg, on the other hand, inhabit a world in which the link between Holocaust denial and malicious antisemitism (presuming they see any other sort) is clear and present. This allows varying (but high) degrees of certainty of the latter to be deduced from the simple presence of the former.

And in the end, I think that this becomes the issue. There seems to be a consensus, one that Mr Zuckerberg may even share, that it is permissible to banish bad people from the public square. The disagreement comes in how one understands that someone qualifies.

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