Why Mill Matters More than Ever: A Student Perspective
Michel de Montaigne described the world as a school of inquiry.” Referencing Montaigne, Tzvetan Todorov wrote that, “Men must be blamed not for failing in their search for the truth, but for renouncing it.” This renunciation of the school of inquiry - manifest societally in close-mindedness, an incurious lack of political imagination, and an assumption of infallibility - is what the 19th century philosopher, John Stuart Mill, ultimately resisted in his book, On Liberty.
An Educational Studies course first introduced me to the HxA’s All Minus One, an abridged and illustrated version of Mills' On Liberty. It is difficult to conjure a more relevant - if not urgent - essay that a student of the liberal arts should read than On Liberty. It was the piece that first roused my passion for the study of political theory and I consider it the most formative amidst those I encountered in my education, for it is Mill who best inspired me to embody the role of the student - to enroll in the school of inquiry that is the world, to embrace the fellowship of life itself.
All Minus One borrows its title from Chapter 2 of Mill's original text, which cautions that “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.”
In their introduction, Richard Reeves and Jonathan Haidt pose the following question: “What harm could be done by silencing this lone eccentric?” Mill, in response, cautions that “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race.” Such an act amounts to a veritable crime against humanity. What warrants this turn of phrase - what is the crime exactly?
Silencing an opinion threatens the space in which the contact between error and truth may occur. Mill insists that freedom of speech and inquiry is intrinsic to democratic politics and identifies a specific process as integral to finding truth: it is the unremitting collation and combination of ideas, especially those that seem to be in opposition to each other that avails us of the truth that exists in either. For Mill, the grand, sweeping collision of disparate lifestyles, perspectives, and opinions is the sole engine of our shared progress - the only mechanism capable of inching us closer towards shared truth.
What distinguishes Mill's On Liberty from surrounding political theory is that it detects in modern societies, in addition to the known governmental threats to freedom, a social threat to free speech and inquiry. Mill artfully describes how not only tyrannical regimes can suppress free speech and inquiry - but that we, the citizens, can become the agents of censorship within society, where groupthink and the threat of ostracism censor those who dare to deviate from a prescribed set of opinions and social norms.
Yet, perhaps the most profound insight harbored within Mill's text is that we can have a system, regime, or institution that guarantees free speech and inquiry without actually being free ourselves. Such a society, lucky enough to enjoy these protections, must also foster a political ethos that values open discourse as being central to democratic politics. Without the careful cultivation of these values and recognition of what is at stake, the arena of free discourse is rendered utterly useless.
My intention here is to draw out what is a less explicit meaning in Mill's text: On Liberty is not only about resisting governmental or social tyranny but also about encouraging and articulating the role that we - you and I - have to play in the political and civic realm, our responsibility to democratic politics, to authentic citizenship. In this sense, Mill inspires us to turn our gaze inward and to recognize the many threats to our freedom that lurk within us all.
Every time we consume information, ideas, and thoughts from the same source as usual - every time we shy away from the mere whiff of the “other” - we commit the crime so starkly described by Mill. This self-insulation rejects any notion of value that the other has to offer oneself, thus depriving us of the revelatory potential that interaction harbors; such willful isolation is self-destructive, for it facilitates the robbing of ourselves by ourselves. In this way, the most vicious crime Mill addresses is not an impersonal robbing - it is not a crime committed by some “other,” be that a regime or social hegemon; it is a crime committed by us. Indeed, we enjoy the perverse ability to at once personify both the perpetrator and victim of this crime, thus compromising our citizenship and contribution to democratic politics.
Haidt and Reeves wrote in the introduction to All Minus One that “Mill's basic lesson was the timeless truth that we need each other - even our opponent - more than we realize.” Expanding upon this idea, Mill challenges us to transcend the facile discussion of mere civility and tolerance, both of which are too passive. Mill inspires in his readers a profound appreciation and respect for the immense potential that discourse holds, urging active engagement with the other - and recognition that the other's position is constitutive to the truth seeking and meaning making of one's own.
In summary, for Mill, our responsibility to democratic politics is twofold:
- Our citizenship demands that we recognize the value of discourse between disparate positions and that we seek it out rather than merely tolerate it.
- We have the responsibility to share our thoughts and ideas with our partners in conversation with grace and sensitivity, and with an equal measure of courage to defend our own position.
Those who were once perceived as opponents are, upon reading Mill, reimagined as partners - co-builders of the world, constructive interlocutors who, together with oneself, collaboratively articulate common values, concerns, and solutions.
Mill's relevance is readily apparent amidst the grim state of our contemporary politics, a realm ravaged by ideological thought that rejects nuance, assumes infallibility, and is utterly bereft of political imagination. As Mill wrote, “ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men … even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions … have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess” (emphasis added).
Here we find Mill's critique of “education” - an institution that, far from inoculating individuals against the superficiality of ideological thought, instead generates ignorant and unimaginative citizens who endure unexamined lives. Mill's thought is crucial in any effort to conceptualize education, not only in the formal sense of schooling, but also in a greater, societal sense of the citizenry, in the sense of nurturing one another’s virtues as engaged and responsible citizens. Education plays a part in cultivating a sociopolitical ethos that encourages active engagement in arenas of free discourse that would otherwise remain uninhabited.
We must encourage higher education - with the help of organizations like the Heterodox Academy - to enrich these arenas and populate them with thoughtful participants in democratic politics. Education itself should not be founded upon mere tolerance or civility but upon respect for free inquiry and discourse buttressed by open-mindedness, imagination, humility, and an appreciation for heterodoxy. What is “heterodoxy,” after all? It is the coupling of the greek words heteros (other) and doxa (opinion). It is the opposite of “orthodoxy,” of course, which is instead the sum of orthos (straight/right) and doxa. Doxa itself finds its derivation in dokein, which means to appear, seem, or think. For the Ancient Greeks, “doxa was the formulation in speech of what “dokei moi” - of “what appears to me” - an understanding of the world “as it opens itself to me.”
Mill lived - as we all do - in a world of appearances, a world which, while shared, opens itself up differently to each of us depending on our position within it. And because we live in the undeniable state of human plurality and diversity, we coexist in a world that appears distinctly to us each - one teeming with discrete thoughts, appearances, and ideas, a world of inevitable heterodoxy. So, if we are to ever make sense of this world and our existence within it, Mill insists that we do everything we can to not only protect spaces of free discourse, but also to inspire our appreciation of it, and cultivate our passion for it.
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