There ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.
This quote could easily be attributed to virtually any mainstream conservative today. After all, mainstream conservatives pride themselves as the stalwart defenders of “free speech absolutism.” Yet perhaps counterintuitively, the thinker who wrote those words was hardly a conservative and mocked the Conservative Party in England “as being by the law of their existence the stupidest party.”
The opening quote is from John Stuart Mill's “On Liberty,” which defends individual liberty as a means to moral progress and human advancement. Modern conservatives thus find themselves in an awkward position, vigorously defending the arguments formulated yesteryear by explicitly anti-conservative liberals. At the same time, the liberal Left is becoming increasingly intolerant of conservative and right-wing voices in the public square. Interestingly, this dilemma traces back to Mill, his intellectual legacy, and a profound naivety on the part of self-proclaimed conservatives.
In “On Liberty,” published in 1859, Mill defends the idea that individual liberty — an essential good in any progressive society — can only be limited when it enacts harm. Likewise, the only limitation on speech and expression Mill acknowledges as legitimate is limiting incitement of violence. In this way, he was an early defender of the “clear and present danger” criterion in American jurisprudence. Mill outlines a vision of society in which all questions are open questions, where we discover truth through different perspectives colliding in a viewpoint-neutral “marketplace of ideas.”
The gravest threat to this free “marketplace of ideas” is what Mill calls the “despotism of customs”: the unexamined public norms and customs that enable citizens to participate in a shared way of life. To Mill, genuine freedom would require dismantling old prejudices that implied judgments and rendered certain questions settled, stagnating moral and intellectual progress. Thus, if necessary, the state must actively use the power of the law to protect creative expressions of individuality from the stultifying influence of social expectations. Mill justifies a concentration of state power by forcing people to accept liberal freedom. Customs must be overruled, so those who seek to live according to personal choices without social norms are at the greatest liberty to do so.
Throughout its intellectual history, a handy tactic used by liberalism has been framing issues through rigid dichotomies: we can have freedom or control, free speech or censorship, and an open or closed society. The truth is that free speech is far more complicated. The real question concerns the proper limits and scope of free speech, not whether we will accept it in the first place. Mill and his intellectual successors envisioned an absolute freedom of speech that would confer equal merit to all thoughts and ideas. But like any marketplace, the “marketplace of ideas” must have some structure and limits, lest it implodes.
This truth emerges when Mill labels the “despotism of custom” as an obstacle to freedom and progress. When we tolerate everything, we inevitably forbid the forbidders and harshly judge the harsh judges. Thus, in a liberal society, no individual receives more intolerance, censorship, and denigration than the non-liberal. By its very nature, the “marketplace of ideas” cannot tolerate the individual who recognizes objective values and views some choices and lifestyles as superior to others. An individual like this cannot participate in the “marketplace of ideas” because they do not concede that all questions are open to debate or accord equal worth to all viewpoints, thus rejecting the foundations of the experimental, skeptical, and liberal society idealized by Mill and others. Indeed, in our “tolerant” and “progressive” age, we hardly live without limits or boundaries. The difference is that those who patrol the borders of speech also happen to claim there are, or ought to be, no such boundaries in the first place.
20th-century conservative political philosopher Wilmoore Kendall identified the censorious tendencies of liberalism in his essay “The 'Open Society' and Its Fallacies.” In it, he wrote:
The proposition that all opinions are equally — and hence infinitely — valuable, said to be the unavoidable inference from the proposition that all opinions are equal, is only one — and perhaps the less likely — of two possible inferences, the other being: all opinions are equally — and hence infinitely — without value, so what difference does it make if one, particularly one not our own, gets suppressed?
Ultimately, freedom of speech can never be completely neutral and tolerate all dissenting viewpoints. Free speech always rests on a bedrock of public consensus. If two people are to engage with one another civilly, they must agree at a minimum on the assumption that the topic in question is one they can reasonably argue. Without a common framework, political disagreement degenerates into factionalism and violence — yet another problem with the liberal conception of absolute free speech. In the words of Kendall, a boundless “marketplace of ideas” inevitably leads to the “progressive breakdown of those common premises upon which alone a society can conduct its affairs by discussion, and so into the abandonment of the discussion process and the arbitrament of public questions by violence and civil war.”
In an age when Americans cannot agree on even the most basic facts about their identity and history, it is no surprise that political violence and rioting have increased so dramatically. We are suffering the practical consequences of purely theoretical free speech.
The views expressed in this article solely represent the author's views and not necessarily College Dissident's.