Defending liberty in 21st century

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Freedom should never be taken for granted. Liberty is precious and must always be protected and nourished.

Every individual who values liberty must be ever vigilant, because there will always be those in government and society who will attack the rights and freedoms of the individual. Power-hungry elites, ideologues and social engineers will always attempt to take away free speech and freedom of expression, starving liberty of ideas that gives rise to innovation and nourishes not only freedom but human development.

We live in a time when government seeks to compel the individual to speak in a prescribed manner. Meanwhile, activists use unruly mobs to intimidate public speakers and their audiences, preventing ideas from being freely discussed in public. And even some scholars unwittingly support tyranny and authoritarianism when they seek to ban colleagues from expressing ideas that challenge the ideological paradigms to which they subscribe.

On social media, activists of all political stripes use intimidation tactics to bully those who put forward ideas that offend them. Indeed, we now live in a culture of outrage, groupthink (to borrow a phrase from George Orwell's novel 1984), and authoritarian tendencies in government and society. Instead of engaging in civilized debate, many users of social media attempt to silence others with profanity-laced insults, allegations of racism or some other form of discrimination, and vapid slogans that neither inform nor enlighten.

John Stuart Mill published his masterful treatise On Liberty in 1859, and his examination of the rights of the individual and the limits of societal and state power remains potent and especially relevant in the politically charged and increasingly polarized times in which we live.

Not only does Mill address the importance of limiting the power of the state, he describes society itself as "the tyrant from which the individual must be protected."

"Protection, therefore against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough," Mill writes. "There needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them."

Moreover, Mill contends that society may attempt to "prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compels all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own."

In Mill's way of thinking, there exists "a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence." But the big questions for Mill (and for our modern society, as well) is where to place limits on the individual's rights and "how to make the fitting adjustment between individual independence and social control."

For Mill, questions of restricting the rights of the individual -- be it by the state through the means of physical force or legal penalties, or by society through "moral coercion of public opinion" -- come down to a single guiding principle. "That principle is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any their numbers is self-protection," Mill declares.

"That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against this will, is to prevent harm to others," he writes of the only justification for infringing upon the liberty of the individual.

Truth and persecution

"History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution," Mill observes. "If not suppressed forever, it may be thrown back for centuries." He points to religious doctrine to buttress his argument, noting that "the Reformation broke out at least twenty times before Luther, and was put down."

Mill warns that it's mistaken to believe that truth "has any inherent power." And he posits that "men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error."

However, Mill maintains that the "real advantage" that favours truth is that "it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it." In other words, the truth will eventually reappear in a more favourable time and "escape persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it."

Mill wrote not just of state persecution but also of the tyranny of society. "Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them or to abstain from any active effort to their diffusion," he writes of the tyranny of prevailing religious orthodoxy of 1859 but which is equally applicable to the tyranny of political correctness in 2018.

Suppressing "heretical opinions" helps to maintain the status quo and prevents "prevailing opinions" from being "outwardly" disturbed. "But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification," writes Mill, "is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind."

Diversity of opinion

Doctrines -- religious and/or secular -- tend to be enemies of free thinking, creativity and ultimately liberty.

"No one can be a great thinker who does not recognize that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead," Mill declares. To be free of "mental slavery," thinkers must gain truth through trial and error, thinking for themselves rather "than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer to themselves to think."

"Diversity of opinion," writes Mill, is "advantageous." The classic liberal thinker argues that there are times when "conflicting doctrines" can "share the truth between them, and the confronting opinion is needed to supply the remainder of the truth."

Mill points out that popular opinions "are often true, but seldom or never the whole truth." The popular opinion contains part of the truth but tends to be "exaggerated, distorted and disjointed."

On the other hand, "heretical" or dissenting opinions "are generally some of these suppressed and neglected truths." And sometimes these dissenting views seek reconciliation "with the truth contained in the common opinion." However, at other times, "heretical" opinions seek to set themselves up "with similar exclusiveness, as the whole truth."

Mill perceptively observes that the latter case is "most frequent, as, in the human mind, one-sidedness has always been the rule, and many-sidedness the exception." In other words, discovery of the truth, "for the most part only substitutes one partial and incomplete truth for another." And he argues that "the new fragment of truth is more wanted, more adapted to the needs of the time than that which it displaces."

Mill's rules

Freedom of opinion and freedom of expression are essential to "the mental well-being of mankind" for four distinct reasons, Mill suggests.

"First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true," he writes of attempts to silence dissenting views that may actually contain truth. "To deny this is to assume our own infallibility."

Second, even if the silenced opinion is incorrect, "it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of the truth." Given that the dominant opinion "is rarely or never the whole truth," Mill says that it's "only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied."

Third, even if the dominant opinion were "the whole truth," Mill asserts that it must still be "vigorously and earnestly contested" lest it be accepted "in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds."

Fourth, unless dissenting opinions are tolerated, "the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost or enfeebled," thereby preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction from reason or personal experience."

Liberty requires the individual to speak boldly, challenging and defending ideas with great vigour. In the final analysis, preventing harm to others is the only legitimate justification for limiting the individual's liberty.