Problems with Modern Liberty of Speech

In John Stuart Mill's most influential and widely read work, On Liberty, he defended what he considered one of the most important pillars of any successful society: liberty of thought, and consequently of speech.  And it is plain from reading On Liberty that Americans have taken Mill's suggestions quite seriously, not only supporting legislation to protect speech from governmental prohibition, but also instituting laws which protect against the so-called tyranny of private opinion.  But has this endeavor actually promoted discussion and rationality, or has it actually suppressed both?

Being firmly convinced that liberty of speech is essential to the maintenance of a healthy democratic republic, Mill believed that tyranny of opinion was just as harmful to the marketplace of ideas as legislated prohibition.  He wrote:

Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.

Reasoning that a man might as well be in prison if he depended upon a bigot for his daily bread, Mill argued that fiscal dependence rendered most intellectually impotent, as their controversial challenges against the status quo could not be safely voiced (On Liberty, chapter 2).  And if the status quo could not properly challenged, there was little way of knowing whether society endorsed the right opinions, or if such opinions relied solely upon dead and irrational traditions for legitimacy.

But this kind of reasoning has several problems.  Although it is plainly obvious that truth should stand the test of scrutiny, and that (as Mill stated) a higher espousal of opinions comes from understanding and successfully refuting said opinions' opposition, there is no way to actually protect the expression of all moral claims.  For instance, if outspoken business owners are placed in financial jeopardy for terminating ideologically and culturally opposite employees (whether that termination is related to contradictory opinions or not), it is more likely such owners will not voice their opinions publicly.  And if someone is silenced under legal threat to promote liberty of speech, then society is not actually promoting liberty of speech.

Yet it might be said that in silencing certain portions of society, particularly those in positions of leadership, Americans sacrifice the liberties of the few bourgeois for those of the more numerous proletariat -- that if someone must be silenced, society might as well silence the minority.  But such a stance is dangerous, since silencing not only those most likely to be educated, but also those experienced in leadership and property management could have no effect other than catastrophe.  And even supposing that a disastrous effect would not happen, any endeavor to protect liberty of speech, if it silences the minority, is little different from any other oppressive democratic government.  Such a "liberated" policy would simply swap one silenced class or culture for another.

But it can be easily proven that even in this scenario, liberty of speech is curtailed beyond the authoritative minority.  Currently, American law protects liberty of speech, but only wherein the existence of every sizable corporation hinges upon said corporation's policing of political and religious discussion.  Supposing such speech is not policed by the company, the bigot, the man most offended by any differing opinion, is given authority to drain company resources through lawsuit, if he cannot bankrupt the company entirely.  In the world before Mill, the powerful bigot may (read: may) be the employer.  After Mill, the empowerment of bigotry is extended to even the lowest employee, increasing the likelihood of non-discussion to unprecedented levels and castrating the progression of American thought.

It can also be proven that such an enforcement of "liberty of speech" persecutes not only those most inclined toward leadership, but particularly those not conforming to leftism.  In one example, a company may publicly adopt a stance promoting homosexuality.  Yet any company declaring a stance for family values is easy prey for activists and their lawyers.  In another, a corporation touting its tendency toward minority advancement will not find itself a target of lawsuits, but a corporate manager publicly proclaiming his preference toward Christian employees will not last long.  And since these examples are not isolated cases, it is clear that those touting left-leaning policies of discrimination live not in fear, but in honor, while their ideological opponents experience the reverse.

In this era, it is also not uncommon for men to act according to this misguided philosophy, refusing to discuss higher moral concepts and touting cowardice and unreasonableness as hallmarks of civilization, simply on the dishonest premise of respect for the opinions of others.  But a lack of discussion cannot be considered respect, especially in a democratic republic wherein people vote to force certain opinions upon others.  To declare so would suggest that speaking against something would be less offensive than secretly acting against it, a widely held belief otherwise recognized as cowardice.

Despite these philosophical flaws, however, and though Mill's proposal had the opposite effect of what he had planned, the very foundation upon which Mill laid liberty of speech was nothing other than competition between truth claims.  Almost ironically, he wrote:

The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded. If the challenge is not accepted, or is accepted and the attempt fails, we are far enough from certainty still; but we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of; we have neglected nothing that could give the truth a chance of reaching us: if the lists are kept open, we may hope that if there be a better truth, it will be found when the human mind is capable of receiving it[.]

Diversity of thought, then, does not derive its value from the propagation of "equally valid" yet contradictory ideologies, but rather from the testing and refining of truth, and the exposure of darkness to light.  Mill, though critically misguided, was not the forefather of postmodernism or multiculturalism.  Rather, he believed that Truth must be sought above all else, and that the permission of error was for no purpose other than to guide mankind toward an inculcation of higher thought and principle -- or else he and the West which followed him would not have sought liberty of speech.

It is most obvious that many Americans have perverted liberty of speech beyond recognition.  They have exchanged the pursuit of one Truth for recognition of multiple non-truths, and they are no longer a people with a God, a goal, or a glorious destiny.  And it is clear that their attempts to foster liberty of speech have failed, even by the liberal standards which such policies claim to uphold.

But if Americans are noble enough to believe in Truth again, and to believe that competition and struggle, and not unwarranted protection, are to help guide them to a brighter future, then American policies against discrimination must go, whether Christians or homosexuals lose their jobs as a result.  And if Americans are to reclaim truth, they must first reclaim not only the God of nature, but His unalienable declarations by which liberty itself exists.

On the other hand, if Americans lack the fortitude to withstand a little suffering for the protection of liberty and truth, and they would rather pretend that all ideologies -- however abominable -- must be voiced not solely for discussion, but for equal legitimacy, then the era of rationality is over.  In this case, Americans should expect nothing less than the inevitable slide into humanity's intellectual gutter.  And indeed, it could be argued that Americans already have.

Jeremy Egerer is a recent convert to Christian conservatism from radical liberalism and the editor of the Seattle website