In his classic work On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) claimed that the freedom of thought and discussion was indispensable to a free society. Mill’s argument in defense of this freedom revolves around fallibilism or the view that no belief can be supported or justified in a conclusive way. Mill reasons as follows: if we are all fallible, then we should engage in dialogue, inquire together, and really listen to one another. After all, if we can be wrong then those with whom we disagree may have the truth or a part of the truth. And even if they don’t have any truth, engaging in genuine dialogue and debate can help us better understand the intellectual grounds of our ideas and allow those ideas to become part of our character. Mill hopes to convince us that, rather than simply tolerating those with whom we disagree, we should celebrate the variety of ideas and inquire with others since it is by working together that we can hope to avoid some of the limitations set by, for example, our senses, language, and limited perspectives.
Mill understood that rational dialogue wouldn’t be easy and lists some of the obstacles we will face: fallacies, the suppression of facts and arguments, misstatements, misrepresentations, offense, and personal attacks will be common. Although he finds these obstacles troubling, Mill claims it is rarely possible to remove and condemn them as morally or legally culpable. But there is one form of personal attack which he thinks we should strive to overcome. In the process of summarizing his argument at the end of chapter two, he writes:
“The worst offense of this kind which can be committed by a polemic is to stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men”.
This offense is particularly dangerous when directed towards those who hold unpopular opinions and lack power and influence. To be sure, Mill thinks those whose characters are indeed malignant, bigoted, or intolerant can be condemned as immoral. But the crucial thing is to avoid “inferring these vices from the side which the person takes, though it be the contrary side of the question to our own”.
Now, what struck me and so many others about the recent election is that Mill’s worst offense was widely committed by supporters of Trump and Clinton alike. Trump, of course, labeled Clinton as a “nasty woman” with “tremendous hate in her heart” and argued that she was a criminal and a liar. Clinton claimed that Trump’s efforts to incite violence and his derogatory comments about women, immigrants, Latinos, Muslims, POWs, African Americans, and people with disabilities were not isolated incidents but a function of his character. In both these cases it was clear that an immoral character was being inferred from the so-called facts. But this character, at least in these examples, was not being inferred from the policies being debated. However, many of us did experience such an inference occurring among ourselves and our fellow Americans. For example, it appeared to be the case that certain Trump supporters were thinking something like this:
“Clinton is a hateful criminal and liar so any Clinton supporter is an immoral person who supports hate and illegal action.”
And it appeared to be the case that certain Clinton supporters were thinking something like this:
“Trump is, among so many other negative other things, a sexist and a racist so any Trump supporter is an immoral sexist and racist.”
Perhaps, given the intensely personal attacks of the candidates, the use of Mill’s worst polemical offense among so many supporters is to be expected. Perhaps it simply became too difficult to separate ideas from character in this election. This notion is as interesting as it is disturbing and demands further analysis. But whatever the cause, scope, or justification of the offense, the crucial thing to meditate upon here is this: if Mill is right, this breakdown of a fallibilisitic sensibility and basic decency in debate is a grave threat to the freedom of thought and discussion and, by extension, to liberty. After all, in this scenario facts and arguments no longer matter insofar as the other side is evil and categorically wrong. All that matters is preventing the other side – the vicious and therefore dangerous side – from gaining power. The opposite side is not a side from whom you might, as we saw above, gain the truth or part of the truth. Rather, the opposite side is the enemy who has absolutely nothing to offer in terms of truth and, in some extreme cases, nothing to offer at all since they are so immoral. All one really needs in the face of such adversity is an arsenal of personal attacks and some form of coercion. At this point, dogmatism sets in and there is no room for errors to be revealed and partial truths to come together into a more comprehensive totality. Mill wrote:
“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”.
The culture of the 2016 election suggests that, far from there being a “quiet suppression of half of it”, there is a loud and clear suppression of the other half which, in many cases, flows from inferring an immoral character from opinions maintained. And this suppression seems to have generated its fair share of exaggerated falsehoods.
My questions: Is it correct to think that Mill’s worst polemical offense is indeed as widespread as I suspect? Is Mill right in thinking it is a formidable evil? And if so, what can be done going forward to combat it?
For an application of some of Mill’s ideas to issues in the wake of George Floyd’s death, go here.