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John Stuart Mill's Prescient Views on Free Speech

In John Stewart Mill's magnum opus On Liberty, he rightfully claims that the greatest threat to an advanced civilization is the tyranny of the majority, which expresses political and social intolerance.

In our polarized political climate, political parties and movements are not concerned with instituting robust democratic and pluralistic governance. Instead, they are more concerned with attaining political clout that enhances short term ideological gains.

For instance, in the United States, populists are attempting to implement a nationalistic vision for the state that puts the interest of the nation first — while progressives are attempting to create a politically correct nation that has social safety nets and encourages immigration.

The debate between these conflicting ideologies has become incredibly unpleasant — with both sides being intellectually dishonest towards one another. Our society needs to remember that freedom of expression is itself a "higher pleasure" and free debate often results in rich compromises and deep intellectual fulfillment. Often, the attainment of truth depends on two sets of conflicting reasonings that are sorted out with rigorous inquiry and debate.

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is robbing the human race of robust political discourse. This is a phenomenon found on the American left with the rise of toxic politically correct cancel culture — and also on the political right — where kneeling during the national anthem is seen as a moral disgrace and any criticism of Israel is deemed anti Semitic.

Mill rightfully claims that "to refuse a hearing of an opinion, because they are sure it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility."

Much of the claims made by populists and progressives are based on narratives and not on concrete empirical data, therefore, most of the claims cannot be deemed absolute truths.

If Mill were alive today, he would rightfully postulate that political animals in political discourse have a societal and individual duty to form the truest opinions they can; to form them carefully, and never impose them upon others unless they are quite sure of being right.

Not only this, but Mill also claims that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion.

In Mill's view, studying all modes in which a topic can be looked at by every character of mind leads to an intellectual bildungsroman. This is a principle that is contradicted with safe spaces and trigger warnings on left wing University campuses. This fundamental principle is also contradicted with political conservatives inability to embrace arguments from different cultural perspectives.

Mill rightfully evokes the example of Socrates — who was put to death by his countrymen, after a judicial conviction, for impiety and immorality. Socrates died for telling the truth, or at least attempting to attain it.
In our era of excessive ideological partisanship and post truth narratives, many academics are being put on the cross for trying to attain the truth. In the end, We must all know that we know nothing and let others speak.


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