If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. - John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION has long been regarded as the cornerstone of liberty. Indeed, without the ability to speak our minds freely the whole notion of liberty begins to unravel. Freedom of expression is vital in at least one other respect – it helps us to arrive at and recognise the truth. This is important because, as many philosophers and religious leaders have observed, it is the truth that sets us free.
The Left’s relationship with freedom of expression has never been an easy one. Ever since the French Revolution of 1789-99 the desire to maintain the purity of the revolutionary message has weighed heavily against those who dared to raise objections concerning the Revolution’s means – if not its ends.
The relaxation of state censorship is the first and most important gift to any revolutionary cause. Historically, the sudden appearance of posters, pamphlets, newspapers and books authored by those whose voices had hitherto been suppressed has always been the surest sign that the old order was crumbling. In today’s repressive regimes it is the unfettered use of social media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and blogs; which signals the arrival of the revolutionary moment. Think of the Arab Spring.
In its youth the Revolution hails freedom of expression as sacrosanct. The revolutionaries know that without it the power of the elites cannot be challenged. As the Revolution matures, however, and new power structures begin to replace the old, the criticism and analysis which freedom of expression makes possible seems less and less like an unqualified good. To the new occupants of these new structures, it is the protection and consolidation of the Revolution’s gains that should take priority. There is no surer sign that the Revolution is over than when the new power elite begins to punish people for exercising their right to free speech.
By this analysis it is clear that the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 70s have well-and-truly passed their expiry date. The great provocations of the Hippy era: think of the Broadway musical “Hair”; the proliferation of revolutionary underground comics; the human “Be-Ins” and “Love-Ins”; Ken Kesey’s “Acid tests”; would today be dismissed as either infantile or inappropriate.
Only last week, on the University of California’s Berkeley campus, birthplace of the “free speech movement” which touched off the student revolt of the 1960s, the world was treated to the spectacle of furious students doing everything in their power to prevent the Alt-Right provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos, from exercising his right to (yep, you guessed it) free speech.
In discussing these sorts of incidents with contemporary leftists, I have been staggered by the consistency of their responses. “What you’ve got to understand, Chris,” they reply, “is that while people have the right to express themselves, they have no right to expect that the things they say will not have consequences.”
If free speech is met with "consequences" - is it any longer free?
Just what those consequences look like can be seen every hour of every day on social media. Relentless incivility; extraordinary personal abuse; the issuing of threats to attack (and even kill) those whose expression is deemed offensive to, or transgressive of, the great revolutionary “truths” of the once “new” social movements; this, sadly, has become the norm on what passes for the “Left” in 2017.
The liberal tradition of responding to the expression of ideas with which you disagree with a reasoned, evidence-based argument in rebuttal no longer seems to fall within either the ideological of intellectual repertoire of today’s left-wingers. The only form of argument they seem capable of deploying is the abusive and circumstantial “Argumentum ad Hominem” – attacking the person rather than his or her ideas.
In his celebrated treatise, “On Liberty”, the nineteenth century English philosopher, John Stuart Mill, states: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
In the ears of far too many contemporary leftists this oft-quoted passage will sound either incomprehensible or offensive. (Mill does, after all, use the sexist noun “mankind” rather than the more appropriate and gender-neutral term, “Humanity”.) To their way of thinking it is entirely right and proper that those who give voice to offensive or hateful opinions should be silenced. If these people would rather not endure the consequences of exercising their freedom of expression, then they should STFU.
“Those who defy the self-evident truths of the new order,” thunder its uncompromising defenders, “must endure the consequences – humiliation and pain!”
What tyrant king or totalitarian dictator could possibly disagree?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 8 February 2017.