Wrong to imprison thoughts, no matter how unpopular

Neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel is to be deported from Canada and upon returning to his native Germany he will be arrested, say German authorities (see AP report above). Why? Because he is a Holocaust denier and that is an illegal belief in Germany.

While most people won’t be sad to see a Hitler-worshiping white supremacist get tossed into prison, there is an important point in this that deserves careful consideration.

Being stupid should not be a crime. There are still people today who don’t accept that the Earth is a sphere. But they need to be shown NASA photos, not the inside of a jail cell. Inciting violence is a reasonable crime and if it can be proved that Zundel directly caused a violent act then he deserves prison. But no one should be locked up simply because they say unpopular, stupid or offensive things. While thoughts and beliefs deserve to be challenged and tested at every turn, no mind should be imprisoned.

History, just like chemistry and biology, falls within an intellectual arena that openly accepts challenges. Any historical ‘fact’ is open to attack, including the Holocaust, because truth is the goal, not popularity or politeness. Zundel’s problem, of course, is that he has no credible evidence to counter the mountain of eye-witness accounts, photographs, documents, and physical remains that clearly show that the Nazis murdered millions of Jews and others during World War II.

The real problem that societies face with people like Zundel is not that he preaches a bizarre and hollow claim, but that there are significant numbers of gullible people who will believe him. The primary reason for this is that almost all schools throughout the world only teach children what to think and never teach children how to think.

In his powerful and important book, The Demon-Haunted World, the late Carl Sagan presented a list of questions and concepts capable of derailing just about any false claim. He named it the ‘Baloney Detection Kit’ and it spans no more than a couple of pages. (a version is online at www1.tpgi.com.au/users/tps-seti/baloney.html)

Thinking skills such as these could be taught to students in a day or two, giving them a lifelong arsenal to defend themselves against delusions and lies. But most children and teenagers are never even encouraged to challenge and analyze ideas, much less given the tools necessary to do it. And this is why we have a world filled with adults who fall for everything from astrology to medical quackery to witchcraft to Holocaust deniers.

World News Editor Guy P. Harrison is at [email protected]

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