Free Speech Fundamentals FAIL: J.S. Mill

“A feminine philosopher”
I have a love-hate relationship with J.S. Mill's On Liberty.

I love that Mill describes the Middle Ages as a time when it was possible for an individual to be a “power in himself...if he had either great talents or a high social position.” Not so, according to Mill, in the present age:
At present individuals are lost in the crowd.
Mill was writing in 1859, but it could almost be now, don't you think? Does any of this sound familiar?
In politics it is almost a triviality to say that public opinion now rules the world. The only power deserving the name is that of masses, and of governments while they make themselves the organ of the tendencies and instincts of masses.
Mill blamed the “whole white population” in America for this state of affairs, while “in England” it was “chiefly the middle class.”
Their thinking is done for them by men much like themselves, addressing them or speaking in their name, on the spur of the moment, through the newspapers.
Can you imagine what he would say about the media nowadays? “I do not,” Mill asserted,
...assert that anything better is compatible as a general rule, with the present low state of the human mind. But that does not hinder the government of mediocrity from being mediocre government.
Mill contrasted this present-day mediocrity with the excellence that may be attained when the many let themselves be guided “by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted an instructed one or few”:
The initiation of all wise or noble things comes and must come from individuals; generally at first from some one individual. The honor and glory of the average man is that he is capable of following that initiative; that he can respond internally to wise and noble things, and be led to them with his eyes open.
Not that the many should be compelled to bend even to the will of such excellent individuals! Quite the reverse.
The power of compelling others into [a particular way] is not only inconsistent with the freedom and development of all the rest [of a people], but corrupting to the strong man himself.
No, what is wanted is not the tyranny of the individual to supersede the tyranny of the masses, but rather eccentricity:
In this age [of mediocrity], the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.
You can see where Milo and I get our reputation for being dangerous, can't you? Oh, wait...we're the eccentric ones.


I hate Mill because he makes it all sound so straightforward. I have taught this essay every other year for the better part of the twenty-first century, and the struggle that I always have is making Mill seem at all remarkable. Everything he says seems to fit the prevailing orthodoxy not just of academia, but of our society as a whole.

For example, he says such unremarkable things as this:
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 power, would be justified in silencing mankind.
Or this:
The whole strength and value...of human judgment depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand. In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct.
Or this:
It is a bitter thought how different a thing the Christianity of the world might have been if the Christian faith had been adopted as the religion of the empire under the auspices of Marcus Aurelius instead of those of Constantine.
Or this:
[The] dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes. History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution.
My colleagues in academia know these truths to be self-evident. They know that knowledge grows only insofar as we are able to weigh different opinions against reason and experience. They know that it is all too easy for those in power in a society--whether individual tyrants or the tyranny of the majority--to silence differences in opinions. They know that persecuting people simply for their ideas is a bad thing. They know that
[a] state of things in which a large portion of the most active and inquiring intellects find it advisable to keep the general principles and grounds of their convictions within their own breasts, and attempt, in what they address to the public, to fit as much as they can of their own conclusions to premises which they have internally renounced, cannot send forth the open, fearless characters and logical, consistent intellects who once adorned the thinking world. The sort of men who can be looked for under it are either mere conformers to commonplace, or timeservers for truth, whose arguments on all great subjects are meant for their hearers, and are not those which have convinced themselves.
Have I told you what I think about anthropogenic climatic change? Right. And yet,
[who] can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral?
What was it my departmental colleague Amy Stanley said about my opinions on race, sex, gender, and faith? Oh, yes. They are not only “hateful,” but “so specious and so odious as not to be worth debating.” Further, my desire to give students an opportunity to consider religious beliefs “from within” as a contrast to the ideas which they may already hold (including “dangerous secular” ones) is a “false proposition [that] hardly counts as opinion based on scholarly research.”


It's our fault, really. By which I mean Christians. Mill has something to say about this as well. Back in the day when Christianity was young, Christians struggled mightily to define and defend their faith. They understood that it is only those ideas that are subjected to the most rigorous criticism that we can ever fully claim to know. Indeed,
[so] essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects that, if opponents of all-important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skillful devil's advocate can conjure up.
Once a faith reaches the status of orthodoxy and doctrine takes its place, it dies, even if people profess to believe its tenets. Mill was scathing:
From this time may usually be dated the decline in the living power of the doctrine.... And to this cause, probably, it is chiefly owing that Christianity now makes so little progress in extending its domain, and after eighteen centuries is still nearly confined to Europeans and the descendants of Europeans.... The sayings of Christ coexist passively in their minds, producing hardly any effect beyond what is caused by mere listening to words so amiable and bland.... Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post as soon as there is no enemy in the field.
The problem, as Mill saw it, was that so much progress has already been made. (He's not really talking about Christianity anymore, it is just his example of a faith that once knew how to defend itself.) Indeed, the “gradual narrowing of the bounds of diversity of opinion” seemed to him “at once inevitable and indispensable.”
As mankind improve, the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase; and the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested.
Which, according to my colleagues, would seem to be where we are today. As Nancy Frankenberry scolded me, the ideas that are prevalent in the academy now about multiculturalism, race, class, and gender, are not opinions, but simply truths: my and her students’ “‘milieu,’ not their ‘religion’... their analytic categories, not their politically correct avoidance of critical thinking.” Nothing to see here, ladies and gentlemen, move along. Move along.


I blame Mill. On the one hand, he claims to be defending the liberty of the individual against the despotism of society. But on the other, he, like my liberal academic colleagues, believes contradictory things. Not that believing contradictory things makes him a bad person, just a person, but that he said these contradictory things with such authority (a.k.a. long-winded sentences more or less designed to convince you he is smarter than you are) that it is all too easy ending up agreeing with him--and never putting his arguments to the test.

Remember those remarkable ancient and medieval individuals who had power in their own right? Power from talent and high status, by which they were able to achieve social and intellectual greatness? You know very well who those people are today. The ones who pride themselves on knowing more than the masses because they think for themselves. Those are the people--the liberals--whom Mill imagined saving society from its mediocrity. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, as Mill might put it, thanks to the classical education his father made sure he received.

It is all well and good looking down on the masses when you are confident that you do not participate in their mediocrity. When you, as a member of the institution founded on the proposition that understanding depends on constant Socratic debate, pride yourself on having put your ideas to the test. When you are confident that the only reason people could disagree with you is that they, unlike you, have not tested their opinions properly, through reasoned debate. It becomes a kind of--dare I say it?--religious belief to be defended at all odds against heresy.

Mill had his own orthodoxy:
The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily or mental and spiritual.
The problem is that this freedom was all Mill cared about--and thus all he hypothesized ought to be put to the test. He gives a number of examples in the fourth and fifth parts of his essay, where he describes a variety of “experiments in living.” What ought society to do about the question of free trade, the sale of poisons, drunkenness, fornication, and gambling? To what extent ought society be involved in the education of children? How far ought society restrict the adherents of one religion, say Christianity, from offending those of another, say Islam? What about those instances in which the Puritans attempted to put down both public and private amusements? Should there be sumptuary laws that prevent the rich from spending their income in a way that offends the less rich? What about the Mormons and their practice of polygamy?

It is almost as if Mill were giving a blueprint for the debates which we are having now. Which, in a way, he did.

Mill, like the majority of my liberal colleagues in academia, was an atheist or, at the very least, not a theist. He credits Christianity with a moral code not thanks to its theology, but rather, tellingly, as a “protest against paganism.” In his view, Christianity is essentially a negative doctrine:
It holds out the hope of heaven and the threat of hell as the appointed and appropriate motives to a virtuous life: in this falling far below the best of the ancients, and doing what lies in it to give to human morality an essentially selfish character, by disconnecting each man's feelings of duty from the interest of his fellow creatures, except so far as a self-interested inducement is offered to him for consulting them.
In a word, Christians are selfish. All they care about is themselves. The pagans were much more virtuous.
If Christians would teach infidels to be just to Christianity, they should themselves be just to infidelity. It can do truth no service to blink the fact, known to all who have the most ordinary acquaintance with literary history, that a large portion of the noblest and most valuable moral teaching has been the work, not only of men who did not know, but of men who knew and rejected, the Christian faith.

Even Mill was not optimistic. Europe, he opined, was on the way out if Europeans could not overcome their stifling mediocrity. 
In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, everyone lives under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship.
Custom had triumphed over eccentricity. Real freedom was almost non-existent. Europe was on the verge of losing its capacity for history, for the spirit of improvement and progress. Only its diversity of character and culture had hitherto prevented Europe from going the way of the custom-bound East.
But it already begins to possess this benefit in a considerably less degree. It is decidedly advancing toward the Chinese ideal of making all people alike.
Indeed, it was arguably already too late. But if so, according to Mill, good riddance. If a civilization is no longer able to defend itself from the barbarians, too bad.
If this be so, the sooner such a civilization receives notice to quit, the better.
Time to send in the barbarians to stir things up. Look, after all, what they did for Europe the first time around. Of course, those barbarians also converted to Christianity--a fact Mill seems purposefully to overlook.

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