John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, first published in 1859, is a preeminent, almost unrivaled contribution to liberal thought. It is a splendid defense of our freedom to live in unconventional, perhaps eccentric, ways—provided we don’t thereby harm others or place them at risk.
Most famously, Mill defended what he called our “liberty of thought and discussion.” This is often referred to as a defense of free speech, but that can give the wrong impression. Free speech is too often understood as something relatively narrow, no more than a freedom from government censorship. For Mill, by contrast, pressures to conform in our speech and conduct don’t come only from the government but also from society as a whole, especially from the people and groups with which we interact as individuals. These reward us if we conform. If we step out of line in word or deed, we can be punished in uncountable ways, ranging from raised eyebrows to social ostracism to orchestrated attacks on our livelihoods.
Mill was concerned about government censorship and unnecessary laws controlling how we live. But he was even more concerned about the myriad forms of social pressure that we encounter every day. They can restrict our originality, creativity, spontaneity, and ability to contribute to social progress. The liberty he urged was not merely a liberty from governmental power but, more broadly, a liberty from the demands of society and the particular portions of it that we encounter.
Yet Mill’s concept of liberty of thought and discussion was also, in a sense, narrower than some twenty-first-century conceptions of free speech. In my view, rightly so. Nothing in Mill’s work defends a liberty for us to tell damaging lies about each other or to harm each other by tearing back the veil of privacy that we each need for modern life to be bearable. In other words, he was not interested in a freedom for us to defame each other or gossip about each other maliciously. His point, rather, was that we should be completely free to discuss ideas and opinions. None of these should be socially heretical.
A reading of On Liberty shows the sorts of ideas and opinions he had in mind. They include controversial opinions about religion, morality, philosophy, politics, and science. We should, for example, be free to argue against the existence of God and the immortality of the soul and to criticize Christian morality, even though belief in God, immortality, and Christian morals was still considered by many people in his day to be nonnegotiable. When On Liberty was published, some reviewers complained that Mill had scandalously placed core Christian certainties among the opinions that should be open to criticism.
Accordingly, Mill wanted all ideas and opinions, on the full range of important issues, to be on the table for public discussion. But he did not at any point suggest an “anything goes” approach to attacking each other through libel, misrepresentation, and invasion of personal privacy. On the contrary, he criticized the tendency to respond to individuals who have opinions opposed to our own by stigmatizing those persons as bad and immoral people. He went on to recommend what he called “the real morality of public discussion,” in which we discuss our ideas and opinions with honesty, good will, open minds, and tolerance for others, fairly interpreting and representing what our opponents are saying and acknowledging, rather than hiding, whatever strengths their arguments might have. While Mill observed that this morality of public discussion is often violated, he added: “I am happy to think that there are many controversialists who to a great extent observe it, and a still greater number who conscientiously strive towards it.”
Some 160 years later, I don’t notice many controversialists conscientiously striving toward a Millian morality of public discussion. On the contrary, we can add to the violations described by Mill—such as ascribing bad moral character to opponents and misrepresenting their positions—such tactics as attempting to get opponents fired or their writings withdrawn from publication. Human beings are conforming animals. If anything, we conform to the ways of our groups and tribes more than is needed, and we are psychologically devastated if they turn against us. This makes it easy to enforce conformity and defeat dissenters through social pressure rather than with better arguments. We see individuals who’ve done nothing wrong feeling the need to recant their honestly expressed opinions, publicly apologize for their words, and outright grovel in the face of mobilized social pressure.
The last thing we need, therefore, is for individuals to be held socially “accountable” in the sense that it’s considered okay for others to punish them merely for opinions they’ve expressed. Likewise, the last slogan we need is the authoritarian catch-cry “Speech has consequences,” meaning it’s okay for people to be harmed if their opinions are disliked by others who have the ability to punish them. Here’s the nasty implication: if you’ve been harmed by others merely for your opinions—perhaps fired from your job or driven into ill-health by personal hostility whipped up around you—you were asking for it.
Even individuals expressing the views I have in this column are now likely to find their positions misrepresented and be portrayed as bad people with sinister or selfish motives. Exactly that has been happening to the signatories of a letter recently published by Harper’s Magazine that expressed similar views to mine (and Mill’s). I’m asking that we all stop participating in this destructive nonsense.
As Mill knew, a free society needs the liberty of thought and discussion. However, as he also knew, this comes with a responsibility—not imposed by law but assumed voluntarily—to engage with others with charity and in good faith. Otherwise, we end up with groupthink and polarization, and we drive good people out of public debate.