I just recently graduated from college, which means I finally have time to devote to my education. So, I decided to read all the great works of Western philosophy that I’ve neglected over the years. As a libertarian, it was embarrassing that I had yet to read an essay so influential to the broader freedom movement: John Stuart Mill’s aptly titled On Liberty. My initial reactions to it, however, were less than ecstatic.
Perhaps this is simply a testament to the effectiveness of Mill’s arguments: they have now become so commonplace as to have become boring.
What struck me most while reading Mill’s essay was how utterly conventional it sounds. From its call for social tolerance to its impassioned case for free speech, Mill’s arguments at times seem stale and uninteresting. Then I realized that such a reaction is natural considering how much of Western society has embraced his ideas; to borrow his own words, Mill’s essay fails to “penetrate the feelings” (40).
Perhaps this is simply a testament to the effectiveness of Mill’s arguments: they have now become so commonplace as to have become boring. We in the United States, for example, hold onto our freedom of speech to the extent that we cry foul when an employee is fired for disseminating unpopular opinions and when unruly protesters are forcibly dispersed.
And yet, while the ideal of free speech is a core Western value, it often finds itself pitted against another of Mill’s principles—namely, that of toleration. Legal license and social acceptance of nearly all religious beliefs, cultures, and lifestyles are critical to the maintenance of a liberal society, says Mill. But what of those who reject such a principle, or at least its particular applications? What is the proper liberal response to illiberal speech?
We've Lost the Thread
For Mill, the response is obvious: not only should illiberal speech be permitted, but it is absolutely necessary for the survival of liberalism itself. If questioning certain ideas is prohibited, then people will be less likely to look for reasons for believing in those ideas, thus weakening any honest adherence to truth. The truth of liberalism as an ideology is doomed to become “one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate truth” (OL, 36).
Their credulous minds have assented to ideas and beliefs too quickly; they have eschewed that healthy skepticism which breeds the most genuine kind of wisdom.
For proof that this has already taken place, one may offer up the bedlam which has found a natural home on American college campuses. In combating what they perceive as racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise intolerant speech, students have frequently succeeded in limiting and sometimes prohibiting the dissemination of unpopular ideas. In the name of promoting liberalism, they have attacked it at its very roots.
It is not surprising, then, to find many students who, while fervently protesting some invited speaker, have very little knowledge about what they are protesting. Their credulous minds have assented to ideas and beliefs too quickly; they have eschewed that healthy skepticism which breeds the most genuine kind of wisdom. As Mill wrote, “Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think” (OL, 34).
Ah, perhaps On Liberty isn’t quite as outdated as I thought.