Why we need experts

The Times has published a story about a furore at the University of Manchester regarding the university library’s decision to keep the Holocaust denier David Irving’s books on public display. Critics of the decision have argued that the books should be in closed access areas and only made available on special request. They argue that classifying them as Historical Studies (which is separated from the History section) is thought to grant Irving’s views a degree of academic legitimacy and so could put Jews in danger from anti-Semites.

Irving came to the public’s attention when he unsuccessfully tried to sue the historian Deborah Lipstadt for libel. In her book Denying the Holocaust, Lipstadt accuses Irving of deliberately distorting and falsifying the historical record to prove the Holocaust is a Jewish conspiracy designed to discredit the Nazis and spread anti-German hate. Irving continues to claim that there were no gas chambers and the majority of deaths in the concentration camps were the result of disease, not murder.

The case of Irving and the issue of Holocaust denial in general has many important implications for the debates concerning our so called post-truth era.  Lipstadt’s contention that all people are entitled to their opinions but not all opinions are equal is a defence of expertise. Put another way, it is a defence of intellectual elitism, the basic premise that a minority of people exist who know more about a subject than the majority and should therefore be granted a greater level of authority than a layperson. Holocaust denial is an attempt to legitimise anti-Semitic lies by presenting them as a form of historical revisionism, an example of a healthy – and indeed necessary – impulse to bring new readings and interpretations to the historical record.

Irving is an expert at presenting himself as a perpetual outsider, a true free thinker who dares to challenge orthodoxy. Central to his modus operandi is convincing people that the very fact of the Holocaust – not it’s causes or consequences – is a subject worthy of serious scholarship. To even enter into this debate one must first treat as plausible the idea that there exists  a truly tremendous conspiracy on the part of the survivors, eye witnesses and Nazi perpetrators to deceive the world that 6 million Jews were exterminated in the gas chambers. It requires one to believe that all archaeological studies of the concentration camps have been conducted with the intention of promulgating a falsehood, that the forensic evidence is fake, and that Hitler had no knowledge of the gas chambers. To even begin to entertain these lies puts one in the same league as cranks like Alex Jones (“they’re poisoning the water to turn the fricking frogs gay”), the 9/11 Truth Movement, and any other paranoid loser who believes the world is run by a council of Freemasons and aliens. But the very fact Holocaust denial has no serious legitimacy in academia is for some proof that there is a grain of truth to it. Indeed, as David Aaronovich points out in Voodoo Histories, conspiracy theorists thrive on their status as outsiders or truth tellers. The fewer who believe a theory means its likelihood of being true increases.

This illustrates the dilemma the University of Manchester faces. Censorship has a habit of creating a frisson around texts  (I remember deciding to buy Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear on the basis that no UK publisher would print it). We have also seen the success the alt-Right has had in packaging racism and misogyny as the new punk by creating a narrative of  thought policing, citing diversity officers and no platforming policies as examples of liberal fascism (but I have yet to be shown how feminism, gay marriage or gender neutral toilets inhibit my freedom of expression). But classification is not a neutral system. Classifying Irving’s books as Holocaust literature rather than as propaganda runs the genuine risk of treating politicised opinions and lies as theories worthy of consideration.

I believe in the power of ideas to shape society and to strengthen our freedoms. Democracy as a market place of ideas remains for me an alluring, even ideal, imaginary of how we might live together. Without a system to administer the dissemination of ideas, however, one person’s prejudices possesses the same veracity as evidence-based claims of a given subject. Michael Gove’s “The British people have had enough of experts” line encapsulates the zeitgeist of distrust towards elitists, those who present themselves as belonging to a community who adjudicate on cultural norms and precepts. There is a conspiratorial whiff to the term “liberal elite” and academics are firmly in the cross hairs. At the heart of this argument is that feeling, not thought, should have a greater role in political decision making. The political consequences of anti-elitism have yet to fully play out but we can already identify some of its kite marks in relation to authoritative knowledge.

We are told universities have a liberal bias and lecturers deliberately exclude dissenting opinions. Knowledge is judiciously administered to occlude overtly conservative and right wing thinkers from the curriculum in favour of post modern philosophers. The internet, on the other hand, provides a space for “real” people to express their opinions without fear of censorship.  All online material is of equal value and deserve serious attention, no matter how outlandish or bogus it appears.

To argue that the internet is a space free of oversight and control misunderstands how it operates. Facebook, for instance, remains the primary source of news but has no legal obligation to filter out the fake stories from the authentic ones. What appears in our feed is the result of algorithms aggregating the data we agree companies like Facebook and Google and Amazon can sell onto third parties. But it is unrealistic to expect Facebook or other companies to take sole responsibility for this oversight. It is ultimately down to us what we choose to read and believe. This cannot be done in silos, however. We need experts – whether they be economists, historians, or scientists – to impart their wisdom so that we may be able to properly analyse and contextualise information.

If Irving’s work is given the proper context then there is no reason it should be removed from the university library. Indeed, Holocaust denial must be studied if it is to be understood for the vile pro-Nazism that it is. But what matters is that students are able to evaluate it’s historical veracity with the appropriate tools and not to digest it as the truth.