The clearest benchmark of a free nation is the right to free speech and expression. The founding fathers certainly seemed to think so, as they placed it at the top of our nation’s Bill of Rights. In order to fully understand why this right is so important, we must look to the classic defense of free expression, given by John Stuart Mill. One might think the right of free speech and expression to be self-evident, however, I should like to briefly discuss the importance of looking directly to Mill’s work in order to fully understand the complexity and responsibility of free expression.
If I asked you to give a brief overview of the novel Moby Dick, you would likely be able to give, at the very least, a few details. You might recite the first line, “Call me Ishmael”, or you may say that the story is about Captain Ahab’s obsession with catching the great whale Moby Dick. What if I asked if you had read the novel in its entirety? What if I asked you tell me about the intricate chemistry between characters, settings and scenes?
It seems that the most influential works of fiction and non-fiction have retained their influence, despite the diminishing number of people actually reading the classics. We see this phenomenon clearly in literature. Stories like Moby Dick and A Christmas Carol are firmly planted in the ethos of our time yet are rarely read in their original form.
The ghosts of these great works hang over our culture. The content and flesh of the stories have been lost, but still they haunt. These ghosts are especially unsettling in the case of cultural philosophy, when logical arguments are lost and conclusions become perverted. We should make a point to revisit the origins of these ghosts when their impact on culture becomes overwhelmingly obvious.
John Stuart Mill’s famous work, On Liberty, is the preeminent defense of free expression. Mill attempts to prove that society (meaning both the governing body and private citizens) should never silence minority opinions, even when the minority opinion is in direct opposition to some widely held belief. It was Mill’s contention that silencing dissenting opinion serves only to weaken society as a whole. The chapter of On Liberty, entitled Of The Liberty of Thought and Discussion, establishes a series of logical arguments to support free expression.
Mill’s arguments elucidate three possible cases in which dissenting opinions might be suppressed, and argues that in all cases such suppression would be wrong. The three instances are as follows: cases in which the dissenting opinion is true and the majority opinion false, cases in which the dissenting opinion is false and the majority opinion true, and cases in which the opposing opinions contain a part of the truth. For each case, Mill supplies arguments, possible objections to each argument, and responds to each of these possible objections. I will refrain from reciting the exact order and wording of Mill’s logical sequence, but there are a few arguments and memorable lines I would like to highlight.
In order to understand Mill’s support of free expression, we must examine the word infallibility, or the phrase, the fallibility of humans. Basically, infallibility means, to never make a mistake. When one judges another individuals opinion as wrong, without hearing any of that individuals reasons, one assumes that their own judgment is never wrong. This is the mistake of assuming infallibility. Such persons mistake, as Mill says, “their certainty for absolute certainty.” When it is applied to the freedom of expression, if an opinion is silenced because it is judged as wrong, there is an assumption of infallibility.
Perhaps we might say that, even if human beings are not infallible, we should still be able to stem the dissemination of ideas that we judge as flawed. One who reasons this way might say that, after all, our ability to make judgments is an essential part of being human.
As a defense for silencing minority opinion, this argument is severely flawed. The argument here rests on the mechanisms of judgment, or rather, how judgment works best. Mill defines judgment, I think rightfully so, as an interplay between both discussion and experience, meaning, when one judges a thing as right or wrong, one should use their own experience base, as well as the evidential arguments of others. More succinctly, one might judge another individual’s opinion as right or wrong only if they have heard the reasons for that individual’s opinion and assessed the validity of that opinion through the lens of their own experience.
To assume that one’s judgment is wholly correct, solely based on one’s own experience, is clearly a mistake. As human beings we are exposed to such a small measure of the total human reality, let alone general reality. By discussing opinions among people of varying opinions, we have the ability to strengthen our reasoning skills, as well as strengthen our opinions. Also, one may find flaws in one’s own reasoning, which may lead to the adoption of alternative opinions that hold greater truth and meaning.
At this point we should discuss the negative impact of dead dogma on understanding and discourse. Dogma, as Mill intends, means a piece of opinionated reasoning, that has been passed down from generation to generation as true, whose evidential body has been lost, and is still open to refutation. In such an instance, if the dogma belief is wrong, and the dissenting opinion right, it would clearly be negative for the dissenting opinion to be silenced. However, Mill argues that it is equally wrong to silence the dissenting opinion even if the dissenting opinion were wrong.
For this, we return to the previous discussion of judgment. In order to gain a full understanding of something as truth, we must engage with the evidence of those who take the opposite opinion. When cases of dogmatic understanding occur, complete understanding of the dogma opinion is lost, because there is no back and forth discussion of reasons and evidence. As Mill says, “it becomes dead dogma, not living truth.”
The risk in such a case is that those who believe strongly in the dogma opinion, without fully understanding the reasons for their belief, tend to lose the day-to-day impact of that opinion. It is particularly a problem when the dogmatic belief runs in direct contrast to what the individual experiences on a day-to-day basis. The individual may believe in the opinion very strongly, while still being forced to live their life in a way that is in conflict with the belief.
Once an opinion becomes dogma, complete understanding and comprehension of the supposed truth is lost. In this way, people who are subject to dogma never achieve an applied understanding of the supposed truth.
I tend to agree with Mill’s assessment. If people are not forced to completely understand their own positions, when they are challenged to defend their positions, they rely on rhetoric and preconceived arguments rather than a fluid and applied defense of their positions.
Perhaps I should give an example of how this discussion might be applied, albeit in a very mundane sense.
I have never read Moby Dick. I know that many people consider it a classic, but I know that many these people who consider it a classic have not read it. I, because I am aware that I know very little about the book, do not have a set opinion on the matter. However, there is a certain American classics professor whose opinion I trust explicitly. She and I agree on our opinions of many books, and her explanation as to why Moby Dick is a classic seems quite sound to me, so my opinion tends towards it being a classic.
Then, one day, I discuss Moby Dick with a friend of mine. I also have immense respect for his opinion. I explain to him my professor’s reasons for why Moby Dick is a classic, but he does not agree. For every argument she gave, he gives a very reasonable and believable refutation as to why Moby Dick is not a classic.
Now I am forced to go read Moby Dick for myself. I take with me the opinions of both my professor and my friend, and I can use both of their arguments to assess what I find within the text. When I finish, I will have a strong judgment about Moby Dick, because I have heard both sides of the argument, and have had the experience of reading the book myself to ground these arguments.