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Mill on free and angry speech

Published onJun 14, 2020
Mill on free and angry speech

John Stuart Mill has a good answer to people who only tolerate protest and dissent from those who are calm and civil (his term is "temperate").

See his 1859 treatise, On Liberty, the long last paragraph of Chapter 2, titled "Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion":

Before quitting the subject of freedom of opinion, it is fit to take some notice of those who say, that the free expression of all opinions should be permitted, on condition that the manner be temperate, and do not pass the bounds of fair discussion. Much might be said on the impossibility of fixing where these supposed bounds are to be placed; for if the test be offence to those whose opinion is attacked, I think experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, appears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intemperate opponent….With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denunciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation. Yet whatever mischief arises from their use, is greatest when they are employed against the comparatively defenceless; and whatever unfair advantage can be derived by any opinion from this mode of asserting it, accrues almost exclusively to received opinions. The worst offence of this kind which can be committed by a polemic, is to stigmatise those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men. To calumny of this sort, those who hold any unpopular opinion are peculiarly exposed, because they are in general few and uninfluential, and nobody but themselves feel much interest in seeing justice done them; but this weapon is, from the nature of the case, denied to those who attack a prevailing opinion: they can neither use it with safety to themselves, nor, if they could, would it do anything but recoil on their own cause. In general, opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate even in a slight degree without losing ground: while unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them. For the interest, therefore, of truth and justice, it is far more important to restrain this employment of vituperative language than the other; and, for example, if it were necessary to choose, there would be much more need to discourage offensive attacks on infidelity, than on religion. It is, however, obvious that law and authority have no business with restraining either, while opinion ought, in every instance, to determine its verdict by the circumstances of the individual case; condemning every one, on whichever side of the argument he places himself, in whose mode of advocacy either want of candour, or malignity, bigotry, or intolerance of feeling manifest themselves; but not inferring these vices from the side which a person takes, though it be the contrary side of the question to our own: and giving merited honour to every one, whatever opinion he may hold, who has calmness to see and honesty to state what his opponents and their opinions really are, exaggerating nothing to their discredit, keeping nothing back which tells, or can be supposed to tell, in their favour. This is the real morality of public discussion; and if often violated, I am happy to think that there are many controversialists who to a great extent observe it, and a still greater number who conscientiously strive towards it.

Mill’s book is in the public domain. Here’s a full-text, open-access edition from Project Gutenberg.

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When I tweeted this passage June 14, 2020, I linked to this post and paraphrased several of Mill’s key points. Here’s my restatement of those points, free from the limitations of Twitter:

  • We might welcome the rule to stay civil if imposed on all alike. But we tend to impose it only on protesters, and not those representing "prevailing opinion". We often applaud establishment figures for incivility, vituperation, and righteous indignation against protesters.

  • If we adopt the rule, then we should judge incivility by protesters and establishment figures with equal harshness. But we don’t. We tend to judge protesters more harshly.

  • If we adopt the rule, then we need to agree on what counts as incivility, and this seems hopeless. Establishment figures tend to regard any "telling and powerful" argument against them as offensive and uncivil.

  • Vituperation from the powerful tends to silence the powerless more than the other way around. Hence, in the interest of "truth and justice", it would be better to deter vituperation from establishment figures than from protesters.

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This post was translated into Czech by Ivana Horak.

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