Deborah Lipstadt: the quest for truth in the post-truth era

How do you defeat Nazis and liars? Focus on the people in earshot, says eminent Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt

February 9, 2017
Matthew Brazier illustration (9 February 2017)
Source: Matthew Brazier

We live in a world in which many people have a dubious connection to reality. Asserting that something is true even when the evidence exists to contradict it has become a point of honour for scores of prominent people. They see themselves not as outliers but as brave adopters of a lonely position.

This was what I faced in the High Court of Justice when, as depicted in the film Denial, I was sued for libel by David Irving, a man who not only espoused Holocaust denial but who helped craft many of its central arguments. Ultimately, the judge ruled that Irving had “misstated historical evidence; adopted positions which run counter to the weight of the evidence; given credence to unreliable evidence and disregarded or dismissed credible evidence”.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with taking a minority position. Galileo was persecuted by the Church for asserting, based on observation, that the Earth revolves around the Sun. After being forced to recant, he is said to have protested: “And yet it moves.” Whether he really did so is open to debate. That the Earth moves is not.

A recent cartoon in The New Yorker succinctly describes the situation. The host of a television quiz show called Facts Don’t Matter tells one of the contestants: “I’m sorry, Jeannie, your answer was correct, but Kevin shouted his incorrect answer over yours, so he gets the points.”

Consider the claim that Muslims in New Jersey danced in celebration on 9/11. No less a figure than Donald Trump asserts that this happened and that he saw it – despite the fact that no footage has ever been found and that police officials have repeatedly and definitively debunked the rumours. During the presidential campaign, Trump said: “I watched [as] thousands and thousands of people were cheering as [the World Trade Center] was coming down …Now, I know they don’t like to talk about it, but it was well covered at the time.” It was not. Trump might have seen Reuters’ video of Arabs dancing, but the dancers were Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Trump is not the only culprit, however. During the Brexit campaign, Michael Gove, on being challenged that “experts” found his conclusions untenable, infamously responded: “People in this country have had enough of experts.” The fact that Gove was once secretary of state for education made his comment stupefying. Then there are those who still insist that vaccines cause autism, even though The Lancet, which first published the claim in 1998, retracted the article in 2010.

But how does one fight such people? A few weeks ago I encountered this problem first-hand at my local gym. Someone said something absurd and I declared: “That has as much validity as Muslims dancing in New Jersey. Never happened.” A man working out next to me said: “Oh yes it did.” When I asked for his evidence he quickly responded: “There is film footage. Fox News found it. I saw it.” An intrigued spectator immediately began working his smartphone. In a moment, he announced: “Breitbart News says it doesn’t exist.” Our informant may have known that if he had cited more mainstream sources, the man would have dismissed them as the untrustworthy “liberal media”. Breitbart News is a far-Right news platform whose former executive chair, Stephen Bannon, is now Trump’s chief strategist.

Yet still the man didn’t back down, and I am not sure he could ever be convinced. He is not interested in evidence unless it comports with his pre-existing beliefs – which, however irrational, make sense to him. He is the classic adherent to conspiracy theories: he has made up his mind and any information that challenges his foregone conclusions must be false. Overturning that with a rational explanation is virtually impossible – especially when the paranoia that often comes with this mindset is laced with hatred, anger and vindictiveness.

The question is whether, by taking such people on, we are giving them precisely what they need to survive: attention. This was the dilemma I faced when I began to write about deniers. It is why, as depicted in Denial, many people insisted that I settle with Irving. Eventually, however, I concluded that giving him some precious oxygen was the price I had to pay to reach those who might be swayed by him. After all, whereas we might once have dismissed some of these folks as tinfoil hat wearers, today they use social media to find other followers.

I am not arguing there should be an orthodoxy about Holocaust history or any other topic. But there are differences between facts, opinions and lies. In the academy, it is considered rather unenlightened to argue that not everything is open to debate. But, as Galileo demonstrated, there are facts – and scholars, teachers and all those who are disturbed by recent developments must be unafraid to proclaim that. It is not the conspiracy theorists at whom we should be aiming. It is the person in the gym working out next to them.

Deborah Lipstadt is the Dorot professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Denial is currently showing in cinemas across the UK.


Print headline: ‘Eyewitness’ views: Irving, Gove, Trump and the guy in the gym

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Reader's comments (10)

It is not the liars but the believers we need to be scared of.
Absolutely spot on. I keep seeing hopeful glimpses of the new light which will emerge from our current gloom, and this article is one of them. Confront the post-truthers with material from media within their own bubble where possible. Though we may be pessimistic when our opponents do not immediately give way, there is evidence from moral psychology that such an approach works in the longer term. People, the Irvings of this world notwithstanding, will typically ponder such encounters and, if consistently, and respectfully, challenged, are very likely to change their minds.
I remember following this case at the time. It's extremely important that those who attempt to distort history are challenged, I'm very glad the case was not settled out of court. I would say though that the case of Galileo vs the Church isn't a perfect analogy. The Church should not have muzzled Galileo, but they did not attempt to rewrite history. The church's argument was that the heliocentric system was not proven (not totally unreasonable at the time as the Copernican system as advocated by Galileo was not without its flaws).
There are those who continue to believe 9/11 was an inside job why? Because in the history of the skyscraper, well over century, not ONE has ever come down free-fall. Thus simple logic would say for THREE to come down free-fall is impossible. Yet to even discuss the serious issue is totally dismissed by most US media. The reason is clear: to accept this very logical conclusion is major threat to those in power, hardly news since governments,US included, have used lies in order to start wars. The 9/11 lie was soon followed by the WMD lie in order to invade Iraq primarily for its oil wealth
Here is the news coverage of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey. Go apologize to that guy at your gym.
I'm a bit late, but how does this prove what that guy in the gym said? There is no footage of anyone celebrating anything; just a group of men escorting someone...
This article is a prime example of selective bias and fact manipulation of the most sickening kind. The ideological leftist-elitist thrust is clear from this so called 'expert'. The fake news and post truth agenda perused by the left dwarfs anything undertaken by the right. Shame on the Times Higher Education for such a complete lack of balance.
The problem is that commentators, including the author of this article, do not clearly differentiate statements which are empirically incorrect from statements which are alternative interpretations of empirical facts. There's a big difference. As a side point, alleged Muslim celebrations of post-911 parties were reported on in the mainstream media (notably a New York Times article of September 18, 2001 by Serge Kovaleski and Fredrick Kunkle, now archived): "In Jersey City, within hours of two jetliners’ plowing into the World Trade Center, law enforcement authorities detained and questioned a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding tailgate-style parties on rooftops while they watched the devastation on the other side of the river." Trump presumably exaggerated when he used the word 'thousands', but that is the kind of inaccuracy which scholars should be in the business of correcting, rather than making grandiose statements about a 'post-truth era', which is in itself a concept which nobody has tried to empirically prove. Journalists are content to keep recycling the same tired string of quotations, like Michael Gove saying that British citizens have had enough of experts. Experts should be respected. Their conclusions, however, are open to criticism as are those of anybody else. Members of the public should not be expected to believe everything an expert says without examining the evidence for themselves. Let's leave behind the insulting idea (which has its parallels in ancient Rome) that the people are stupid, irrational, gullible, susceptible to tricks and deception. Humanities scholars in Britain and America, who decades ago disposed of the pure waters of truth and empiricism to drink from the poisoned wells of postmodernism and other pompous 'movements', are not in a position to preach. They should take care of the beam in their own eye before trying to pick the mote out of somebody else's.
If it's true, you can prove it - as indeed the Nazi genocide of Jews and other races is provable. It's not complicated. There are not many cases where only experts are capable of understanding the evidence, and those tend to be in the least politicised fields of enquiry. I think there definitely is a problem with the 'cult of the expert' in many areas - experts who spout twaddle don't deserve deference, and the claims of any expert should be subjectable to enquiry. If what they are saying is to be accepted as true, it should be demonstrable, or at least supported by strong evidence. Obviously there are idealogues who won't accept the Nazi Holocaust, evolution through natural selection, or that vaccines are unlikely to cause autism. That cranks exist does not absolve experts of the obligation to demonstrate evidence for their claims. Nor should cranks be persecuted - Irving's prosecutions for holocaust denial strengthened his support, whereas his failed libel claim weakened it.
It's fair enough to criticise 'experts' if they'really making outlandish predictions, which later turn out to be false or based on questionable assumptions. People were right to be fed up with biased academics who acted as little more than propagandists for the EU and the Cameron government's remain campaign. it's not as if economics has a very good track record of late.