On Liberty, a text which is over 150 years old, was penned in 1859 by John Stuart Mill. One may think that we can learn nothing new from this Victorian piece, or indeed from any Victorian writing. However, circumstance suggests that plenty of people need to read this classic. We now live in a world where speech and ideas are filtered extensively. Not just by the authorities, but also by a great many ‘activists’ whose only impact on the world is to live inside an echo chamber where they only hear their own ideas, everyone else’s are drowned out. Limiting the political platform is a favourite tactic used by many activists, denying people who they disagree with the chance to speak. We now live in an era where the echo chamber seems to be starting to imprint itself into intellectual institutions, previously held as bastions of debate and wide-ranging opinions. This leads to hopeless paradoxes, where academics bemoan the governments anti extremism measure, arguing that it destroys free speech, while also being at universities which operates a no platform policy. The freedom which technology, that we hoped would free us, just hasn’t. Technology is not at fault, but the society it functions within.
Mill was a utilitarian. He believed in the greater happiness of the greater masses. Unlike many student activists today, Mill believed freedom was the best way to achieve happiness. He believed we know the best way to live our lives. This idea seems to have been lost by a great many people and institutions. Instead, we are told constantly how to live our lives, by people and by institutions. Indeed, it is now becoming common place for people to tell us how to think, and that people who don’t follow the societal line being extensively punished. It also goes the other way, activists can often be the victim of mindless trolls. Mill believed it was necessary to accept different modes of living, as long as they didn’t harm anyone else. This isn’t the same as cultural relativism which doesn’t distinguish between any culture, no matter how pernicious it is. The British often confuses this distinguishing feature, as is well documented by Nick Cohen’s book What’s Left?
It is true to argue that speech can cause harm. When talking about bullying, slander, and whipping up mobs these are clear breaches of speech and its very small limits. When speech leads to harm it must be restricted and stopped. However, it seems that we have crossed the boundary where speech that offends is highly policed. Just recently, we saw a street preacher arrested and fined for preaching homophobia from the bible, using infamous quotes from Leviticus as his prime example. Now, as an atheist, a progressive, and a gay man I do not enjoy this man’s speech. If I heard this man speak I would most likely challenge him in public. However, there is a wider point to be made. In this age of constant information and the ability to post our ideas across the world for everyone to see, the freedom we once hoped for hasn’t come to pass. The proliferation of social media was supposed to free us, instead it has done exactly the opposite. Our views can become widespread in the public eye, we are chained to views deemed acceptable by those who are most active in our society. People now bully alternative views into submission, anyone on the internet knows this to be true. Instead of leading to truth and honesty, we now have an internet filtered for what many deem to be acceptable behaviour and views.
I am not suggesting that all our problems in society can be addressed by Mill’s work. However, I do feel major issues can be addressed with more people reading his work, and his essay On Liberty in particular. If we took Mill on his word, we would accept different cultures that are rightly valid, whilst not falling into the trap of accepting cultures which are positively harmful. We would accept that people have a right to a view and the best way to challenge opposing views is through open debate. If we merely ban it, we end up having beliefs we cannot justify, Mill called this a dead dogma. Not only this, but if we really understood On liberty and its message we would value others and the diversity of the human race. We would accept that people disagreeing and value our diverse tapestry of views, because tolerance and openness makes democracy work.
By Sam Mace, Senior Writer for Daily Political View.