Discover more from A User's Guide to History
Freedom of opinion is not to protect dissidents
It’s to protect the rest of us from ourselves
Raise your hand if you agree with the following:
“The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.”
Perhaps you’d like elaboration. Try this:
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.”
If you agree with this principle today, you might lie anywhere on the middle third of the political spectrum, from moderate conservative to moderate liberal. Those on the right end of the spectrum might wish to impose their religious views on others, for example; those on the far left to compel participation in government-run health systems. But in the middle there is a general preference for letting people do what they want.
If you had agreed with this principle in 1859, when John Stuart Mill published On Liberty, the book in which the above passages appeared, and you had lived in England, where he did, you would have been something of a radical. The primary target of Mill’s concern was established religion, embodied in the Church of England, which had long told English men and women what to believe, on pain of political disqualification and social disability. The bishops and priests of the Anglican church, supported by the British government, professed concern for the welfare—the salvation—of those on whom they imposed their theology. Recent laws had eased the political restrictions on Roman Catholics and Jews, but social stigma remained. Mill objected to the latter as much as to the former. His salvation, or damnation, was the business of no one but himself, he said.
Religious preference wasn’t such an issue in America at that time. Americans had been a motley group religiously from the start, and religious toleration had been built into politics with the First Amendment—even though that amendment originally applied only to the federal government. States could still favor one religion over others; Massachusetts funded the Congregational Church until the 1830s.
Other parts of Mill’s argument for liberty touched America fully as much as England. The freedom Mill claimed for individuals included freedom of speech and opinion, on which he was adamant. And his concern extended beyond government restraints to social disapprobation. In fact, Mill popularized the phrase “tyranny of the majority” to describe what public opinion can do to suppress free speech more effectively than government ever can.
Mill advanced four arguments in favor of freedom of opinion:
“First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.
“Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.
“Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth, unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.
“And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.”
Mill would run into trouble today in America for such views. There are plenty of opinions that are compelled to silence by the tyranny of, if not the majority, a large and loud enough minority to put purveyors of unpopular opinions in social and economic jeopardy. The examples are numerous and appear on both sides of the political divide. The lieutenant governor of Texas recently forbade the state history museum from hosting a discussion about a book called Forget the Alamo. Several states have moved to ban “critical race theory” from school curricula. Facebook and Twitter gave the boot to former president Donald Trump. Author J. K. Rowling triggered a boycott of her books by arguing that an emphasis on transgender rights endangered the rights of women. New York Times reporter Donald McNeil was forced to resign after discussing the appropriateness of quoting a common racial slur in news stories. Publisher Simon & Schuster canceled a contract for a memoir by Republican senator Josh Hawley for his position on the 2020 election.
Mill would have had no patience with any of this. He wouldn’t dispute the right of individuals and private firms to boycott opinions they don’t like, but he would challenge their wisdom in doing so.
In his judgment, the greatest losers when unpopular opinions are suppressed are not the dissidents, though they might suffer in the short run. The real losers are the members of society as a whole, who get stuck with wrong, imperfect, unchallenged or stale dogmas. To suppress opinion is to stifle debate, the mechanism by which society’s collective knowledge advances.
To deny this, as Mill wrote, is to assume one’s own infallibility. Which of course is exactly what the opinion-suppressors do. And which, historically, is about the most consistently fallible thing humans have ever done.