by Alagi Yorro Jallow
"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and one, and only one person was 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."
– John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1867, p10)
John Stuart Mill is one of the most famous philosophers and political economists from the 19th century. In the above quote, Mill is saying that everybody should be allowed to say their opinion, even if nobody else agrees with them. This is commonly referred to as "free speech".
The idea of free speech sparks a lot of disagreement and debate. Most people say they support free speech, but in practice most people want the government to restrict or regulate some speech that they think is unfair, dangerous, or offensive.
One of my very favorite ideas in political philosophy is John Stuart Mill’s ‘marketplace of ideas’ (though he didn’t phrase it this way himself): that the free, open, and vigorous exchange of ideas in the public square does more to further human knowledge than anything else. But not only has his comprehensive and to my mind, correct defense of free speech in his great work On Liberty had an immense and beneficial influence on the history and theory of human rights, he was admirable in myriad other ways as well:
Liberalism used to be about freedom, especially freedom of speech and freedom of opinion. Everyone was entitled to their own opinion, no matter how acceptable or offensive, and everyone had the right to challenge every opinion. This, as John Stuart Mill pointed out, created a marketplace of ideas where ideas could be challenged, discredited, vindicated, or even improved.
Now, the left seems to be less about freedom and more about social orthodoxy. From silencing opponents on any hot-button issues, or forcing conformity to majority opinion, anyone who dares to dissent from the new way of doing things is either silenced, or ridiculed. Strangely, the logical merits of the case are never discussed – only the character of the dissenter is attacked.
So now, in the place of diversity of opinion, we have group-think. In the place of skepticism, we have orthodoxy, and in the place of place of dissent, we have heresy.
There is no room for modern day book burning in an intelligent world. Free speech in all forms is the cornerstone of a free society and we must allow all points of view to be heard. As John Stuart Mill said in the 1800s, “The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful is the cause of half their errors.”
What do you think? Should the government prevent people from saying some things, or let people say whatever they think? If you think the government should restrict speech, what sorts of words or ideas do you think should be banned?