On Liberty, Free Speech and Civility: It’s Complicated


In his book On Liberty, second generation utilitarian J.S. Mill famously argues for completely free speech – save to prevent imminent harm to another person.  He understands this in terms of imminent physical harm. not because (as my students sometimes posit) that he did not understand psychology and the impact of verbal, emotional and other non-physical forms of harm; rather those are difficult to quantify and thus are much more complicated and subjective in terms of the utilitarian calculus. Mill is not arguing from a natural or human rights view here. Instead he is arguing that this level of free speech (despite the harms that it will cause) is and has been in history more conducive to progress and some version of Truth over the long run of human history (Chapter 2.)

This view, of course, is interesting to talk about with students as they think they agree with Mill, until we start to get into the nitty gritty of what this view actually means.  Then the ‘…but what about…’ starts.  What about sexual harassment? What about hate speech? What about…? It gets complicated pretty fast as contemporary Americans in practice often reject Mill’s radical argument. We have moved to qualify his argument and tend to disagree with his claim that this radical free speech is best for society in the long run.

As interesting as the overall argument is, I am always struck by his argument at the very end of this chapter, which seems even more apt and complicated for our own time. “Before quitting the subject of freedom of opinion, it is fit to take some notice of those who say that free expression of all opinions should be permitted on condition that the manner be temperate, and do not pass the bounds of fair discussion.”  So free discussion ought to be civil and fair.  Who can disagree with that, especially in our own time when it seems to many that traditional norms of civil discourse are under attack or have disappeared altogether? A quick look at social media platforms seem to bear out the ways in which insults, bad arguments, name calling and bullying have come to dominate public ‘discussion.’

But, of course, its complicated. Mill’s notes that these calls for civility occur when the dominant side in a discussion is being bested by the minority view and they do not have other arguments to offer. In short, civility is used as a move of political silencing again the vulnerable and minority viewpoint by those in power. This seems born out by history as well: persons of color, women and many other minority groups trying to express their views and critique power have been told they are not being civil, that they must play by the ‘rules of the game.’  The charge of ‘respectability politics’ is one that is often heard in our public discourse when charges of incivility or coarsening of speech are leveled by dominant perspectives or groups.

In terms of Mill’s text, he is playing by the ‘rules of the game’ in constructing a philosophical argument rooted in rationality, argument and evidence, designed to appeal to the audience who presumably shares his philosophical starting point of classical liberalism (especially individual rights and free conscience.)  But what about a work like F. Fannon’s “The Fact of Blackness” Fannon which is a highly personal, emotional and literary reflection on his experience of Blackness and its implications for philosophical and other debates about race and ethnicity. One could argue (I am not!) that is not part of civil philosophical discourse and he is violating the rules of civil philosophical discussion (as the discipline of philosophy might understand it.) I expect similar arguments could be made against Nietzsche, feminist, critical race theorists and many others who use non-traditional formats and approaches to critique a dominant view.

This issue is one that I think is important to discuss with my students, since the syllabus includes MY ground rules for civil discourse in the classroom and gives them a chance to reflect on what makes for good discussion and what helps us seek after knowledge and Truth.  (IS this how we ought to run our class?) Mill himself finally comes down on the side of civility, with the acknowledgement of how ‘civility’ can be misused and asking us to be cognizant of that fact, while still arguing that fair and civil discussion has the best prospect for advancing Truth and progress in terms of knowledge.

While there are clear and systemic problems with who gets to define ‘fair and civil’ discussion and how we understand this requirement in different contexts, at the end of the day I think Mill is right on this. This is not to ignore the social, institutional and social power dynamics and privilege at work here, and we need to take seriously the question about what kinds of public discourse are most productive and allow for truly critical thought and challenging of power in our own context. We cannot ignore history or the ways in which the powerful use ‘civility’ to reinforce the status quo and prevent the very kinds of discussion that Mill thinks is so necessary.

On the other hand, we have a democratic republic. Those who are wrong (so we think) have one vote and free speech. Those who are right (or think they are) also have the same. Change requires the ability of one side or perspective to persuade the other side, or at least some part of that group, to change their minds and endorse another political course of action. It might be tempting to think that the ‘wrong’ side will just die out like dinosaurs and the ‘right’ side can just wait. It also might be tempting to engage in the fantasy that the ‘wrong’ side will be defeated, eliminated or marginalized. But in the words of the meme, That’s Not How This Works, That’s Not How Any of This Works.  At long as we *are* a democratic republic, we need public discourse and the ability to persuade our compatriots and fellow citizens (whether one likes them or not, whether one agrees with them or sees them as an existential threat) to another course of action.

And if this is right (which it might NOT be as Mill would remind us!) then I think ‘civil and fair’ discussion is the most effective in the long term. Political violence might be easier and more efficient, but that is not our system. (I suppose another system is possible…) Insults, bullying and screaming might be cathartic and satisfying (especially in a reality show, drama and attention craving culture), but its not clear what it accomplishes in terms of changing minds – except to likely ossify one’s opponents to hold to their views more strongly and make the situation worse! Compromise may be a dirty word in our political discourse, and certainly many argue that no compromise is possible with ‘evil’ and ‘wrong,’ but we should remember Mill’s point that the assertion that a position is beyond reproach, obviously correct is itself, is a political power move designed to avoid or circumvent free discussion, as much as the ‘civility’ move is.

However, this is hard to remember in the heat of fear, frustration and genuine social/political issues that need addressing and have not been addressed by those in power. So I am sympathetic to the objection Mill discusses. At the end of the day, however, I am a pragmatist. What will work? Not today, not tomorrow, but over the long term and in coherence with our generally shared moral and political values. It’s gonna be messy. I am not going to tell anyone to be quiet or not speak. I am going to speak, in ac civil and fair manner I hope, but with the understanding that it is complicated. And that I could be wrong. (Do not tell my kids…)


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