Mill's Opinion on Freedom of Expression and Individual Liberty

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One of the most important liberties in a free society would be freedom of opinion and freedom of expression. Some extreme freedom of speech absolutists would argue that all sorts of opinions should be given the right to be expressed. These opinions may include hate speech, misinformation, and dangerous conspiracies that often take the form of memes or dog whistles that targets ethnic minorities. This freedom would include the freedom to be hosted on major online platforms. Others who advocate for these manifestations of free speech to be censored would deem their speech harmful to society and individuals. John Stuart Mill used 3 hypothetical to explain his perspective on why censoring speech is harmful. However, using John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, some speech may need to be censored or deemed illegal to prevent harm.

John Stuart Mill argued that an ideal society would have individual freedoms maximized. Of those freedoms, freedom of opinion and freedom of expression was believed by Mill to be the key components of a free society. “[i]f all mankind minus one were of one 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.” Mill’s argument was centered around the idea that censorship, or silencing, is inherently harmful to all. On the assumption that the opinion of that one person is wrong, society has lost its opportunity to strengthen its beliefs which generally is the consequence of conflicting with an opposing viewpoint. On the assumption that the silenced opinion is correct, our dogmatism and hostility towards opposing viewpoints would impede potential progress. This would result in a state of stagnation, where custom rather than reason could be used to justify unjust laws. On the assumption that both parties are both partially correct and incorrect, silencing will prevent the “better truth” from emerging. The “Harm principle” is the one limitation to the liberty of mill’s imagining. This is the idea that individual liberty should be limited if it means preventing harm to others. Most may agree with this principle but most will not agree upon what constitutes harm.

There have been many interesting cases recently regarding the censorship of controversial, often right-wing, speakers. Alex Jones, an online conspiracy theorist and “journalist”, has pushed many conspiracy theories in the past that has led to direct and indirect harm to those who were believed to be involved in the conspiracies. Jones has pushed many dangerous false narratives such as school shootings being false flag operations and claimed to have evidence for a satanic pedophile ring run by prominent members of the Democratic Party. These claims inspired many death threats by Jone’s audience and eventually resulted in a man almost shooting up a pizza parlor. Jones was later “silenced” by most online platforms that host his content. Although there were no legal consequences to Jones’s harmful speech, it sparked a debate on whether online platforms should be public utility or should remain under private control (topic for another day).

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This long-winded tangent was used to demonstrate the problems I have with Mill’s system: censoring harmful speech is harmful in and of itself, people are vulnerable to misinformation and propaganda, there is no universal definition of harm, and who and how much a person is responsible for their speech is often confusing. Let’s consider Jones’s example. If we were to have silenced Jones and his conspiracies, society would have lost the privilege to dunk on Jones’s faulty claims, and it would have deprived the internet of good quality memes. This would be seen as harmful. If we allow Jones to continue to express his opinions on a platform, it could potentially be harmful to those who may be subjects of one of Jones’s future conspiracies. Although I would assume that the harm principle would override any sort of liberty that one is entitled to, this contradiction cannot go unnoticed. This is because there is no clear way of knowing if the harm caused by censorship that is enacted to prevent harm, may cause more harm than the harm it tries to prevent. For the sake of argument, let’s say Jones’s case resulted in the death of someone who was believed to be a part of the conspiracy. Although Jones did not personally kill or did not instruct anyone to kill this person, the death was the result of his speech.To what degree is he responsible? Should conspiracy theories be outlawed?

Often many of these cases aren’t as clear cut as Jones’s. For some period of time in my past, I started listening to Jordan Peterson somewhat due to the surrounding controversy. The common criticism levied at controversial speakers such as Peterson is that they often misrepresent or present primed facts or data points to support their conservative sentiments. When pushed on the narrative that is insinuated, counterfactuals are overlooked or unaddressed, and the speaker claims to have no allegiance to the narrative, only to the “facts” and numbers. One of Peterson’s controversial takes was about the differences between men and women. His argument was that: because women on “average are more agreeable and conscientious”, “they will likely prioritize children overwork.” Under Mill’s notion of liberty, this may be an unpopular opinion that could potentially be true or could hold some truth. When it comes to unpopular opinions that are seemingly backed by evidence, it would seem wrong to silence such opinions. The potential harm for such cases is often overlooked. In an egalitarian and free society, one would ideally be free of societal pressures that demand one to act according to one’s assigned identity. Peterson’s is-ought fallacy could be deemed harmful as it enforces the status quo. Pushing this narrative can be seen as a harmful act, for the argument is in support of societal structures that discriminate and the discrimination is made out to be justified. His argument also enforces gender roles and could promote harmful gender stereotypes.

Even to me, silencing Peterson for these beliefs seems a little harsh since there are a lot worse out there. Would we say the same for someone who argues that one race is superior to another? Like Peterson, they would cite data while simultaneously leaving out crucial information, and would draw conclusions that are not only harmful to the goals and values of our society, but also supports the status of the majority and harms the minority. Mill argued that censorship can do harm and might have adverse effects. By banning an opinion, the opinion continues to spread but goes unchallenged, making it more dangerous. If the correct opinion goes unchallenged, our defense of it will weaken over time. Adversity is required to reinforce and strengthen our opinions (with reason and facts ideally), and censorship will effectively end that dynamic. It is very difficult to know where to draw the line.

Mill also seemed to imply that human beings are truth-seeking, ration actors. Being human, we are subject to human errors: biases, tribalism and vulnerability to rhetoric. Opinions, including my own, are not usually derived from knowledge and truth, but from experiences and environment. If the truth were to come out, some will hold on to their fallible beliefs. I will use the anti-vaccine movement to illustrate my problem. Against the consensus, some would advocate for skepticism behind the safety of vaccines. Countless times their conspiracy theory was debunked, yet this seems to be a recurring problem. Again a problem that resulted from platforming a debate that has done measurable harm to society. Some may argue that the problem is the debate itself. By presenting the debate as 2 equal sides with equal air time, people who have skeptical tendencies may become exposed to a dangerous opinion. People are also subject to misinformation and confirmation which reinforces these false beliefs.

It seems that I ended up with more questions than what I started with. Although I do believe Mill’s model is a good starting point for establishing individual liberties, there are contradictions and dilemmas within the model that makes it difficult to agree with completely. Most will agree with Mill’s “Harm Principle” but may not agree on what is harmful. As there is no objective morals, it is impossible to have an objective definition of harm. Silencing harmful speech is harmful, not silencing harmful speech is harmful, letting harmful ideas go unchallenged is harmful, and giving a debate platform to harmful ideas may make it seem more legitimate (this is harmful too, by the way). The least harmful option will vary case by case. John Stuart Mill laid out convincing arguments for his system of free speech. The 3 hypotheticals were a good foundation that demonstrated the purpose and utility in free speech, and his harm principle set the limits of that free speech. It is often unclear what is the least harmful way to regulate and limit speech. I would personally advocate for censorship, because I believe that the harm that censorship prevents is greater than the harm that censorship produces (this too can have limits, I suppose).

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