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11. July 2011

Problems with modern liberty of speech

In John Stuart Mill‘s most influential and widely read work, On Liberty, he defended what he considered to be one of the most important pillars of any successful society, liberty of thought, and consequently of speech.  And it is plain from reading On Liberty that Americans have taken his suggestions quite seriously, not only supporting legislation to protect speech from governmental prohibition, but also instituting laws which protect against the so-called tyranny of private opinion.  But has this endeavor actually promoted discussion and rationality, or has it actually suppressed both?

Having been firmly convinced that liberty of speech was essential to the maintenance of a healthy democratic republic, Mill believed that tyranny of opinion was just as harmful to the marketplace of ideas as legislated prohibition.  He wrote,

Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; 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.

Reasoning that a man might as well be in prison if he depended upon a bigot for his daily bread, Mill argued that fiscal dependence rendered most intellectually impotent, as their controversial challenges against the status quo could not be safely voiced (On Liberty, chapter 2). And if the status quo could not properly challenged, there was little way of knowing whether society endorsed the right opinions, or such opinions relied solely upon dead and irrational traditions for legitimacy.

But this kind of reasoning has several problems.  Although it is plainly obvious that truth should stand the test of scrutiny, and that (as Mill stated) a higher espousal of opinions comes from understanding and successfully refuting their opposition, there is no way to actually protect the expression of all moral claims. For instance, if outspoken business owners are placed in financial jeopardy for terminating ideologically and culturally opposite employees (whether that termination is related to contradictory opinions or not), it is more likely such owners will not voice their opinions publicly.  And if someone is silenced under legal threat to promote liberty of speech, then society is not actually promoting liberty of speech.

Yet, it might be said that in silencing certain portions of society, particularly those in positions of leadership, Americans sacrifice the liberties of the few bourgeois for those of the more numerous proletarian; that if someone must be silenced, society might as well silence the minority.  But such a stance is self-defeating, since silencing those most likely to not only be educated, but those experienced in leadership and property management could have no effect other than catastrophe.  And even supposing such a disastrous effect would not happen, any endeavor to protect liberty of speech, if it silences the minority, is little different from any other oppressive democratic government.  Such a “liberated” policy would simply swap one silenced class or culture for another.

But it can be easily proven that even in this scenario, liberty of speech is curtailed beyond the authoritative minority.  Currently, American law protects liberty of speech, but only one wherein the existence of every sizable corporation hinges upon their policing of political and religious discussion.  Supposing such speech is not policed by the company, the bigot, the man most offended by any differing opinion, is given authority to drain company resources through lawsuit, if he cannot bankrupt the company entirely. In the world before Mill, the powerful bigot may (read: may) be the employer.  After Mill, the empowerment of bigotry is extended to even the lowest employee, increasing the likelihood of non-discussion to unprecedented levels and castrating the progression of American thought.

This absurdity aside, thinkers are then confronted with another.  Certainly, it can also be proven that such an enforcement of “liberty of speech” not only persecutes those most inclined toward leadership, but particularly those not conforming to leftism.  In one example, a company may publicly adopt a stance in promotion of homosexuality.  Yet, any company declaring a stance for family values is easy prey for activists and their lawyers. In another, a corporation touting its tendency toward minority advancement will not find itself a target of lawsuits, but a corporate manager publicly proclaiming his preference toward Christian employees will not last long.  And since these examples are not isolated cases, it is clear that those touting leftward leaning policies of discrimination live not in fear, but in honor, while their ideological opponents experience the reverse.  Once again, a class or culture is silenced.

In this era, it is also not uncommon for men to act according to this misguided philosophy, refusing to discuss higher moral concepts, and touting cowardice and unreasonableness as hallmarks of civilization, simply on the dishonest premise of respect for the opinions of others.  But a lack of discussion cannot be considered respect, especially in democratic republic wherein people vote to force certain opinions upon others. To declare so would suggest that speaking against something would be less offensive than secretly acting against it, a belief otherwise recognized as cowardice.

Despite these philosophical flaws, however, and though Mill’s proposal had the opposite effect of which he had planned, the very foundation upon which Mill laid liberty of speech was nothing other than competition between truth claims.  Almost ironically, he wrote,

The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded. If the challenge is not accepted, or is accepted and the attempt fails, we are far enough from certainty still; but we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of; we have neglected nothing that could give the truth a chance of reaching us: if the lists are kept open, we may hope that if there be a better truth, it will be found when the human mind is capable of receiving it;

Diversity of thought, then, does not derive its value from the propagation of “equally valid” yet contradictory ideologies, but rather from the testing and refining of truth, and the exposure of darkness to light.  Mill, though critically misguided, was not the forefather of postmodernism or multiculturalism.  Rather, he believed that Truth must be sought above all else, and that the permission of error was for no purpose other than to guide mankind toward an inculcation of higher thought and principle, or else he and the West which followed him would not have sought liberty of speech.

It is most obvious that Americans have perverted liberty of speech beyond recognition, and that they have exchanged the pursuit of one Truth for a recognition of multiple non-truths, that they are no longer a people with a God, a goal, or a glorious destiny.   And it is clear that their attempts to foster liberty of speech have failed, by even the liberal standards which such policies claim to uphold.

But if Americans are noble enough to believe in Truth again, and to believe that competition and struggle, and not unwarranted protection, is to help guide them to a brighter future, then American policies against discrimination must go, whether Christians or homosexuals lose their jobs as a result.  And if Americans are to reclaim truth, they must first reclaim not only the God of nature, but His unalienable declarations by which liberty itself exists.

But if Americans lack the fortitude to withstand a little suffering for the protection of liberty and truth, and they would rather pretend that all ideologies — however abominable — must be voiced not solely for discussion, but for equal legitimacy, then the era of rationality is over, and Americans should expect nothing less than the inevitable slide into humanity’s intellectual gutter. And indeed, it could be argued that Americans already have.


  1. This really belongs with your AT piece of 8/27/11.

    Civilization versus the Barbarian
    By Jeremy Egerer

    For all of this Noble gobbledygook neither Mr. Egerer defines the difference between Freedom & Liberty, nor does JSM. John Stuart Mill was a “Utilitarian” which is the polar opposite of our Founders and Framers vision.

    Simply put, Freedom can be given because it requires no personal responsibility on the part of the receiver. Liberty on the other hand requires personal responsibility, the will and ability to live by the social contract (David Hume), to assimilate in other words.

    “Utilitarian ism” is the pretext for the Government minding YOUR business under the pretext that it knows best what is good for you. This is the pretext for “Consolidation” & “Collectivism”.

    The antidote for this was and always must be in a Country this large & diverse is “Federalism” (Montesquieu & Federalist #10 & 51). Our Founders and Framers knew that the basis for ALL truly FREE interactions amongst people, States and Nation was the ability to form Legal and binding CONTRACTS or COMPACTS.

    The sacred basis of the Union was just that: the Contract. Here is the definition of Federal as Madison et al. understood it. Noah Webster’s dictionary of 1828:

    The basis of North America’s discovery & Colonization from Christopher Columbus to John Cabot to the May Flower Compact all have one thing in common: They are all based on contracts as was the Articles and the Constitution (“Strict Construction of the Constitution”). The Declaration by contrast was the official dissolution of the Colonist’s contracts with the Crown (George III). It severed our legal ties to England.

    The Barbarians, on the other hand, do not respect, allow nor honor contracts. That is the fundamental basis of modern “Progressive” Liberalism which has its basis in the principles espoused by George Fox. We know it as: Quakerism.

    When the Barbarians are at the gates one has to actually fight & die for one’s beliefs. It is here that Quakerism and modern Liberalism intersect because it is precisely at that moment that both philosophies collapse by ducking the responsibility enforce the social contract by force if necessary. They shirk this responsibility by claiming to transcend such Earthly matters.

    This is how the Republic, as the Founder’s envisioned it, ended on July 4th, 1861.

    Comment by otisg1 — 27. August 2011 @ 12:12

  2. A very interesting comment! This is the first time I’ve seen a difference distinguished between liberty and freedom, and it’s an interesting one. I’ll have to do more studying before accepting that they are different, as I believe that liberty and freedom are both bought with blood, and exist within the unalienable interpersonal boundaries set forth in Scripture, but your definitions are worth a look. Thank you for reading American Clarity.


    Comment by admin — 27. August 2011 @ 14:16

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