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Some Elementary Comments on
The Rights of Freedom of Expression



Noam Chomsky
Appeared as an avis to Faurisson's Memoire en defense



The remarks that follow are sufficiently banal so that I feel that an
apology is in order to reasonable people who may happen to read them. If
there is, nevertheless, good reason to put them on paper -- and I fear that
there is -- this testifies to some remarkable features of contemporary
French intellectual culture.

Before I turn to the subject on which I have been asked to comment, two
clarifications are necessary. The remarks that follow are limited in two
crucial respects. First: I am concerned here solely with a narrow and
specific topic, namely, the right of free expression of ideas, conclusions
and beliefs. I have nothing to say here about the work of Robert Faurisson
or his critics, of which I know very little, or about the topics they
address, concerning which I have no special knowledge. Second: I will have
some harsh (but merited) things to say about certain segments of the French
intelligentsia, who have demonstrated that they have not the slightest
concern for fact or reason, as I have learned from unpleasant personal
experience that I will not review here. Certainly, what I say does not apply
to many others, who maintain a firm commitment to intellectual integrity.
This is not the place for a detailed account. The tendencies to which I
refer are, I believe, sufficiently significant to merit attention and
concern, but I would not want these comments to be misunderstood as applying
beyond their specific scope.

Some time ago I was asked to sign a petition in defense of Robert
Faurisson's "freedom of speech and expression." The petition said absolutely
nothing about the character, quality or validity of his research, but
restricted itself quite explicitly to a defense of elementary rights that
are taken for granted in democratic societies, calling upon university and
government officials to "do everything possible to ensure the [Faurisson's]
safety and the free exercise of his legal rights." I signed it without
hesitation.

The fact that I had signed the petition aroused a storm of protest in
France. In the Nouvel Observateur, an ex-Stalinist who has changed
allegiance but not intellectual style published a grossly falsified version
of the contents of the petition, amidst a stream of falsehoods that merit no
comment. This, however, I have come to regard as normal. I was considerably
more surprised to read in Esprit (September 1980) that Pierre Vidal-Naquet
found the petition "scandaleuse," citing specifically that fact that I had
signed it (I omit the discussion of an accompanying article by the editor
that again merits no comment, at least among people who retain a commitment
to elementary values of truth and honesty).

Vidal-Naquet offers exactly one reason for finding the petition, and my act
of signing it, "scandaleuse": the petition, he claims, presented Faurisson's
" 'conclusions' comme si elles etaient effectivement des decouvertes [as if
they had just been discovered]." Vidal-Naquet's statement is false. The
petition simply stated that Faurisson had presented his "finding," which is
uncontroversial, stating or implying precisely nothing about their value and
implying nothing about their validity. Perhaps Vidal-Naquet was misled by
faulty understanding of the English wording of the petition; that is,
perhaps he misunderstood the English word "findings." It is, of course,
obvious that if I say that someone presented his "findings" I imply nothing
whatsoever about their character or validity; the statement is perfectly
neutral in this respect. I assume that it was indeed a simple
misunderstanding of the text that led Vidal-Naquet to write what he did, in
which case he will, of course, publicly withdraw that accusation that I
(among others) have done something "scandaleuse" in signing an innocuous
civil rights petition of the sort that all of us sign frequently.

I do not want to discuss individuals. Suppose, then, that some person does
indeed find the petition "scandaleuse," not on the basis of misreading, but
because of what it actually says. Let us suppose that this person finds
Faurisson's ideas offensive, even horrendous, and finds his scholarship to
be a scandal. Let us suppose further that he is correct in these conclusions
-- whether he is or not is plainly irrelevant in this context. Then we must
conclude that the person in question believes that the petition was
"scandaleuse" because Faurisson should indeed be denied the normal rights of
self-expression, should be barred from the university, should be subjected
to harassment and even violence, etc. Such attitudes are not uncommon. They
are typical, for example of American Communists and no doubt their
counterparts elsewhere. Among people who have learned something from the
18th century (say, Voltaire) it is a truism, hardly deserving discussion,
that the defense of the right of free expression is not restricted to ideas
one approves of, and that it is precisely in the case of ideas found most
offensive that these rights must be most vigorously defended. Advocacy of
the right to express ideas that are generally approved is, quite obviously,
a matter of no significance. All of this is well-understood in the United
States, which is why there has been nothing like the Faurisson affair here.
In France, where a civil libertarian tradition is evidently not
well-established and where there have been deep totalitarian strains among
the intelligentsia for many years (collaborationism, the great influence of
Leninism and its offshoots, the near-lunatic character of the new
intellectual right, etc.), matters are apparently quite different.

For those who are concerned with the state of French intellectual culture,
the Faurisson affair is not without interest. Two comparisons immediately
come to mind. The first is this. I have frequently signed petitions --
indeed, gone to far greater lengths -- on behalf of Russian dissidents whose
views are absolutely horrendous: advocates of ongoing U.S. savagery in
Indochina, or of policies that would lead to nuclear war, or of a religious
chauvinism that is reminiscent of the dark ages. No one has ever raised an
objection. Should someone have done so, I would regard this with the same
contempt as is deserved by the behavior of those who denounce the petition
in support of Faurisson's civil rights, and for exactly the same reason. I
do not read the Communist Party press, but I have little doubt that the
commissars and apparatchiks have carefully perused these petitions, seeking
out phrases that could be maliciously misinterpreted, in an effort to
discredit these efforts to prevent the suppression of human rights. In
comparison, when I state that irrespective of his views, Faurisson's civil
rights should be guaranteed, this is taken to be "scandaleuse" and a great
fuss is made about it in France. The reason for the distinction seems
obvious enough. In the case of the Russian dissidents, the state (our
states) approves of supporting them, for its own reasons, which have little
to do with concern for human rights, needless to say. In the case of
Faurisson, however, defense of his civil rights is not officially approved
doctrine -- far from it -- so that segments of the intelligentsia, who are
ever eager to line up and march off to the beat of the drums, do not
perceive any need to take the stance accepted without question in the case
of Soviet dissidents. In France, there may well be other factors: perhaps a
lingering guilt about disgraceful behavior of substantial sectors under
Vichy, the failure to protest the French wars in Indochina, that lasting
impact of Stalinism and more generally Leninist doctrines, the bizarre and
dadaistic character of certain streams of intellectual life in postwar
France which makes rational discourse appear to be such an odd and
unintelligible pastime, the currents of anti-Semitism that have exploded
into violence.

A second comparison also comes to mind. I rarely have much good to say about
the mainstream intelligentsia in the United States, who generally resemble
their counterparts elsewhere. Still, it is very illuminating to compare the
reaction to the Faurisson affair in France and to the same phenomenon here.
In the United States, Arthur Butz (whom one might regard as the American
Faurisson) has not been subjected to the kind of merciless attack levelled
against Faurisson. When the "no holocaust" historians hold a large
international meeting in the United States, as they did some months ago,
there is nothing like the hysteria that we find in France over the Faurisson
affair. When the American Nazi Party calls for a parade in the largely
Jewish city of Skokie, Illinois -- obviously, pure provocation -- the
American Civil Liberties Union defends their rights (though of course, the
American Communist Party is infuriated). As far as I am aware, much the same
is true in England or Australia, countries which, like the United States,
have a live civil libertarian tradition. Butz and the rest are sharply
criticized and condemned, but without any attack on their civil rights, to
my knowledge. There is no need, in these countries, for an innocuous
petition such as the one that is found "scandaleuse" in France, and if there
were such a petition, it would surely not be attacked outside of limited and
insignificant circles. The comparison is, again, illuminating. One should
try to understand it. One might argue, perhaps, that Nazism and
anti-Semitism are much more threatening in France. I think that this is
true, but it is simply a reflection of the same factors that led to the
Leninism of substantial sectors of the French intelligentsia for a long
period, their contempt for elementary civil libertarian principles today,
and their current fanaticism in beating the drums for crusades against the
Third World. There are, in short, deep-seated totalitarian strains that
emerge in various guises, a matter well worth further consideration, I
believe.

Let me add a final remark about Faurisson's alleged "anti-Semitism." Note
first that even if Faurisson were to be a rabid anti-Semite and fanatic
pro-Nazi -- such charges have been presented to me in private correspondence
that it would be improper to cite in detail here -- this would have no
bearing whatsoever on the legitimacy of the defense of his civil rights. On
the contrary, it would make it all the more imperative to defend them since,
once again, it has been a truism for years, indeed centuries, that it is
precisely in the case of horrendous ideas that the right of free expression
must be most vigorously defended; it is easy enough to defend free
expression for those who require no such defense. Putting this central issue
aside, is it true that Faurisson is an anti-Semite or a neo-Nazi? As noted
earlier, I do not know his work very well. But from what I have read --
largely as a result of the nature of the attacks on him -- I find no
evidence to support either conclusion. Nor do I find credible evidence in
the material that I have read concerning him, either in the public record or
in private correspondence. As far as I can determine, he is a relatively
apolitical liberal of some sort. In support of the charge of anti-Semitism,
I have been informed that Faurisson is remembered by some schoolmates as
having expressed anti-Semitic sentiments in the 1940s, and as having written
a letter that some interpret as having anti-Semitic implications at the time
of the Algerian war. I am a little surprised that serious people should put
such charges forth -- even in private -- as a sufficient basis for
castigating someone as a long-time and well-known anti-Semitic. I am aware
of nothing in the public record to support such charges. I will not pursue
the exercise, but suppose we were to apply similar standards to others,
asking, for example, what their attitude was towards the French war in
Indochina, or to Stalinism, decades ago. Perhaps no more need be said.

Cambridge, Massachusetts
October 11, 1980




Extracted from:
The Chomsky Archive // Archive | New World Media | ZNet.
Transcribed by Don Bashford. This HTML version originally formatted by Daragh McDonnell. See the
French edition of this text.

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ARTICLE 19. <Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.>
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948,

ARTIKEL 19 der Menschenrechte: <Jederman hat das Recht auf Freiheit der Meinung und der Meinungsäußerung; dieses Recht umfaßt die unbehinderte Meinungsfreiheit und die Freiheit, ohne Rücksicht auf Staatsgrenzen Informationen und Gedankengut durch Mittel jeder Art sich zu beschaffen, zu empfangen und weiterzugeben.>
Vereinigten Nationen, 10 Dezember 1948.

ARTICLE 19 <Tout individu a droit à la liberté d'opinion et d'expression, ce qui implique le droit de ne pas être inquiété pour ses opinions et celui de chercher, de recevoir et de répandre, sans considération de frontière, les informations et les idées par quelque moyen d'expression que ce soit>
Déclaration internationale des droits de l'homme, adoptée par l'Assemblée générale de l'ONU à Paris, le 10 décembre 1948

ARTICULO 19 <Todo individuo tiene derecho a la libertad de opinión y de expresión; este derecho incluye el de no ser molestado a causa de sus opiniones, el de investigar y recibir informaciones y opiniones, y el de difundidrlas, sin limitación de fronteras, por cualquier medio de expresión.>
Declaracion universal de los derechos humanos, adoptada por la Asamblea General de las Naciones Unidas el 10 de diciembre de 1948 en París


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