John Stuart Mill's treatise On Liberty
is a brilliant exposition of why dissent, debate and occasional vitriol is a vital aspect of a truly progressive discussion.
When, in a previous diary, I asked the Moose What does Progressive Mean Now? the response was wonderfully motley and diverse: this is something that J.S. Mill would approve of.
Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.
There are so many quotations from this book I'd love to share with you, but for the sake of brevity in this festive season, I'll concentrate on Mill's take on argument and dissent. The whole pamphlet On Liberty is a celebration of the collision of ideas, and he abhors nothing more than group think.
The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or as fellow-citizens, to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature, that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power.
As we've seen on other blogs (I shouldn't have to mention their orange names) the pressure to conform to others is immense, and to put Mill's premise in a nutshell, he believes that all of us are enhanced when we protect minority opinions even when they are unpopular - in fact especially when they're unpopular.
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...
All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.
He then draws examples throughout history of great thinkers who were scorned and ignored and silenced in their own lifetime (think Socrates and Jesus).
the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.
That's telling us. In other words, "the interests of truth require a diversity of opinions", even if that leads to conflicts and flame wars.
Truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites, that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness, and it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners...
Spacemanspliff has Koan's line about 'self censorship' being the biggest danger in the progressive blogosphere, and Mill provides support for this. We often bite our tongues when confronted with opinions we don't share, but this runs the danger that these opinions never get tested in debate. It's not about who wins the argument: in fact the combatants themselves might be fairly irrelevant. What matters more is what the 'lurkers' or bystanders perceive:
It is not on the impassioned partisan, it is on the calmer and more disinterested bystander, that this collision of opinions works its salutary effect. Not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil; there is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides; it is when they attend only to one that errors harden into prejudices, and truth itself ceases to have the effect of truth, by being exaggerated into falsehood.
So, as an early holiday gift after this phenomenal year in politics, online and offline, please enjoy a one hundred and fifty year old celebration of the liberal blogosphere by a crabby old Brit. Mill has much more to say about how to turn this freedom of opinion into freedom of action and lifestyle, but I'll write that up a second diary next week.
Meanwhile, here's his summation of the importance of liberty of expression and thought.
We have now recognised the necessity to the mental well-being of mankind (on which all their other well-being depends) of freedom of opinion, and freedom of the expression of opinion, on four distinct grounds; which we will now briefly recapitulate.
First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.
Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.
Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.
And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.
UPDATE: 09/16/2011: The new comment thread starts here