Diana Senechal: A review of 'On Liberty' in today’s context

  John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

From The New England Journal of Higher Education, a service of the New England Board of Higher Education (nebhe.org)

When teaching political philosophy to high school juniors in New York City, I would spend evening hours pondering John Stuart Mill’s treatise On Liberty, asking myself how to help students through the difficult syntax and even more difficult ideas. Often, students would say at the outset that they agreed with Mill, but when I pressed them further, I found more differences of thought. Indeed, the principles of liberty that Mill articulates—first, that all opinions have a place in public discussion, and second, that people should be allowed to live as they wish, as long as they do not impinge on others’ rights—are so far from general acceptance today that liberty itself, or at least Mill’s conception of it, remains a distant aspiration. Building it would require not only great dedication but also fear of the alternatives.

We eagerly shut out certain opinions, if only because we believe they have been disproven; we likewise take offense at others’ “wrong” words, movements and gestures. Both the political left and the political right seek out the like-minded and disparage the others. Many of those involved in identity politics—particularly but not only on the left—insist that people do damage not only through overt action, but through microagressions and implicit bias: that they hurt others through tiny gestures, slips of tongue and even hidden thoughts. On the right, conspiracy theories have taken hold, thanks in great part to the ravings of President Trump: for example, the media are full of lies, George Soros has been paying political protesters, and Jews are aiding immigrants who will destroy the white race. On the personal level, public online shaming, even for trivial offenses or private matters, has become quotidian.

But what did Mill say, and why is it difficult? Recognizing the pitfalls of reducing his ideas, I will focus here on two sentences, one about liberty of expression and the other about individuality.

In the second chapter of On Liberty, Mill sets forth a prickly proposition: “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.” He goes on to explain that we can learn from an opinion whether it is right or wrong; if it is right, then we benefit from its truth; if wrong, we come to understand why. But who embraces this idea today? Most of us consider certain opinions a waste of time, if not a threat to humanity. Must we really deal with climate-change deniers, white supremacists, flat-Earthers? Should we not focus on ideas worth considering? Perhaps Mill did not mean this; perhaps he did not foresee such profusion of baseless notions. Yet it is also possible that Mill’s proposition must be taken in its sheer difficulty: that its implementation requires conscience, vigilance and searching.

When it comes to individual freedom, Mill takes an even more provocative stance. After conceding that people should not make themselves a nuisance to others, Mill continues, “But if he refrains from molesting others in what concerns them, and merely acts according to his own inclination and judgment in things which concern himself, the same reasons which show that opinion should be free, prove also that he should be allowed, without molestation, to carry his opinions into practice at his own cost.” Anything short of this, according to Mill, would result in imitation; to have a free mind, one must be able to choose how to live. He goes on to examine the “despotism of Custom”—so strong and overarching, in his view, that liberty is in peril.

Individual liberty is in even greater danger today than in Mill’s time, since people now display their lives online for social approval and censure. It takes discipline and strength of character to keep something to yourself; instead, people continually test the digital waters and adjust their images and lives accordingly. Sometimes online judgments are brutal; a nasty personal comment, made on a Facebook page or comment section, can hurt more than words spoken in person—because it does not go away, because it grows in the imagination, and because it brings humiliation. It takes little effort to ridicule someone online, and for what? Usually for things that the perpetrator has not bothered to understand. People judge each other not for who they are, but for their tokens of social approval, which are imitative and coercive by nature. Gone is the respect for the unknown.

What would it take to reclaim and strengthen liberty as a principle of American life? One must recognize, first of all, the consequences of not doing so. Without liberty and the willingness to strive for it, America has no more reason for existence other than sheer physical survival; the same can be said for other democratic nations. Survival itself would be at risk; without counterbalance and self-questioning, extremist views would harden, and hate rallies and mass shootings would increase. Second, to defend liberty, one would have to recognize its difficulty—which is perhaps Mill’s underlying point. Liberty does not come glibly; it often goes against what we consider necessary or right. It has complications, inconveniences and open questions. Where is the line between private and public life, between opinion and action? How can we listen to all opinions without getting bogged in redundancy? These questions have no final, definite answers; they must be taken up again and again. To reclaim liberty, then, we must wrestle with questions, in our personal lives, writings, schools, political structures and online forums. Finally, while taking personal responsibility for liberty, while building it into our lives, we must come together to elect leaders who support and exemplify this work.

Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2011) and Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018) as well as numerous articles. She teaches English, American civilization and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, in Szolnok, Hungary.