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The Ideal of ‘Social Rights’ Violates Liberty

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By Walter Donway

October 10, 2018

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To: The Political Correctness Thought Police
From: John Stuart Mill
Subject: On Liberty

This is Memo III of the three-part series. Memo I was “A Memo to the Thought Police on Liberty.”

Memo II was “Disagreement with the Left is the New Blasphemy.”

One of the greatest scientists of the 20th Century, James Watson, co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the structure of DNA, was lured into expressing his view on this issue (the reporter was a former student whose discretion he trusted). It was reported in the London Times. His planned talks in England promptly were cancelled. He was dismissed as the chairman of the board of the laboratory he founded and developed. He essentially disappeared from public view, his name henceforward mentioned solely in the context of his politically incorrect statement.

Watson had been asked for his assessment of the future development of the African nations. He replied that he could not be optimistic because of the well-established average differences among the races in IQ.

Watson had been asked for his assessment of the future development of the African nations. He replied that he could not be optimistic because of the well-established average differences among the races in IQ. It was his understanding that those measurements of difference, tested and retested over many years, with controls for possibly confounding factors, indicated a significantly lower average IQ of the black race. It was a confidential comment on the part of Watson, but, played up by his reporter “friend,” it destroyed his career and reputation.
Surely, though, it is useful to suppress public discussion of a racially charged, potentially socially disruptive idea? In fact, virtually all psychologists, today, do so when it comes to intelligence measurements related to race or sex. One such prominent psychologist said, off the record, “even if it were true, we shouldn’t say so.”

At issue here is not the truth or falsity of the highly controversial research to which Watson alluded. To return to Mill:

“But those who satisfy themselves [with the argument for the usefulness of suppressing an idea] do not perceive that the assumption of infallibility is merely shifted from one point to another. The usefulness of an opinion is itself a matter of opinion—as disputable, as open to discussion … as the opinion itself.

“And so far as the assumption [of infallibility] being less objectionable or less dangerous because the opinion is called immoral or impious, this is the case of all others in which it is most fatal. These are exactly the occasions on which the men of one generation commit those dreadful mistakes which excite the astonishment and horror of posterity. …

“Mankind can hardly be too often reminded that there was once a man called Socrates, between whom and the authorities and public opinion of his time there took place a memorable collision … the tribunal, there is every ground for believing, honestly found him guilty. …

“To pass from this to the only other instance of judicial iniquity, the mention of which, after the condemnation of Socrates, would not be an anticlimax: the event which took place on Calvary rather more than eighteen hundred years ago.”
 

Persecuting the Heretics

“Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion.” “… the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification,” he warned, “is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.”

No, said Mill, England no longer executed its heretics. In his day, he said, there remained …” but rags and remnants of persecution …” as compared with earlier eras. “Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion.”

“… the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification,” he warned, “is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind. A state of things in which a large portion of the most active and inquiring intellects find it advisable to keep the general principles and grounds of their convictions within their own breasts. …The greatest harm done is to those who are not heretics, and whose mental development is cramped and their reason cowed by the fear of heresy.”

Now, wrote Mill, “Let us pass to the second division of the case for liberty, and dismissing the supposition that any of the receive opinions may be false, let us assume them to be true …” If the prevailing views are true, what are the consequences of suppressing challenges to them that are politically incorrect?

“However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility of his opinion being false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that, however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”

He continues “… assuming that the true opinion abides in the mind, but abides as a prejudice, a belief independent of, and proof against, argument—this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being. This is not knowing the truth. Truth thus held, is but one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth.”

Mill devotes several pages to this idea. What people believe “they ought to be able to defend against at least the common objections.” And then, the famous epigrammatic statement: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” And it is not only the case, the grounds, for an opinion that ultimately are lost, but literally the meaning of that opinion. “The words which convey it cease to suggest ideas. …”

And, in the end, not only an individual but an entire culture, or country, may cease to be affected by a once living, vital idea of which only “the formularies” remain.

“… the creed remains as it were outside the mind, incrusting and petrifying it against all other influences addressed to the higher parts of our nature; manifesting its power by not suffering any fresh and living conviction to get in, but itself doing nothing for the mind or heart except standing sentinel over them to keep them vacant.”

I would suggest to the reader that today this grim fate is overtaking our most ubiquitously deployed terms (no longer rising to the status of “concepts”): equality, justice, rights, diversity, freedom, oppression, discrimination, intelligence, racism…

I would suggest to the reader that today this grim fate is overtaking our most ubiquitously deployed terms (no longer rising to the status of “concepts”): equality, justice, rights, diversity, freedom, oppression, discrimination, intelligence, racism…

Who can use one of those terms, today, with any confidence of being understood? Who can define one of them without anticipating almost endless disagreement?

When I write “justice” and mean determining what someone has earned or merits, either as reward or punishment, I am talking past all those who speak of “social justice,” which means not the giving of the earned but satisfaction of a debt that is owed to people by virtue of their race, history, or economic position.

When I use “rights” and mean the moral principle that individuals by nature may act freely, without coercion or the threat of it, and must recognize the same freedom on the part of others, I am talking past all those who insist on the “right” at someone else’s expense to medical care, education, housing, a job, and paid maternity leave—to take but a few examples.

When I use “intelligence” and mean the degree of an individual’s ability from an early age to function on the conceptual level, I am talking past those who embrace the theory of “multiple intelligences” “emotional intelligence,” or even view the term as rationalizing the oppressor class in maintaining social inequality.

When I use “diversity” and mean differences among individuals in their capacities, interests, and ideas, I am talking past all those who mean a mixture of races, ethnic groups, sexes, or other categories.

Mill writes: “The doctrines have no hold on ordinary believers—are not a power in their minds. They have a habitual respect for the sound of them, but no feeling which spreads from the words to the things signified.”

He then turns to a third case. “Popular opinions, on subjects not palpable to sense, are often true, but seldom or never the whole truth.” An opinion may be a greater or lesser part of the truth, he writes, but “Heretical opinions, on the other hand, are generally some of [the] … suppressed or neglected truths, bursting the bonds which kept them down …”

In fact, however, “even in revolutions of opinion, one part of the truth usually sets while the other rises. … Improvement consists chiefly in this, that the new fragment of truth is more wanted, more adapted to the needs of the time than that which it displaces.”

Mill is talking here about the whole evolution of popular opinion over eras and centuries—an evolution driven, briskly or lamely, by the challenge to settled opinion of ideas “expressed with equal freedom and enforced and defended with equal talent and energy” that cause a “reconciling and combining of opposites that … has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners.”

Mill then entertains the objection that there are truths, namely Christian morality, that are “the whole truth on the subject, and if anyone teaches a morality that varies from it, he is wholly in error.”

After several pages showing that history provides no grounds for this assertion, he adds: “I do not pretend that the most unlimited use of the freedom of enunciating all possible opinions would put an end to the evils of religious or philosophical sectarianism.”

No. “Every truth which men of narrow capacity are in earnest about is sure to be asserted, inculcated, and in many ways even acted on, as if no other truth existed in the world.”

To change such minds is not the virtue, or expectation, of jealously safeguarding the liberty to challenge the received wisdom of an era, to espouse the politically incorrect. “… it is not on the impassioned partisan, it is on the calmer and more disinterested bystander, that this collision of opinions works its salutary effect … there is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides; it is when they attend only to one that errors harden into prejudices. …”

In America, today, we are enshrining a litany of politically correct opinions in schools and colleges, the mainstream media, political discourse, and in the buzz of Hollywood celebrities, sports stars, comedians, the authors of Broadway plays, and the social media—although in this last, where not only celebrities but millions of ordinary citizens have their say, there is a level of dissent from the politically correct. It has panicked and enraged the thought vigilantes, who now call for censoring dangerous “false” opinion of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and online comment columns.

“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 …” But “… if the test be offense to those whose opinions are attacked, I think that experience testifies that this offense is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful. …

“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 employing of them against the prevailing opinion; against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain from 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. …”

In the vanguard of protest against politically incorrect ideas are today’s universities, charged with the mission of free and fearless discussion of ideas, but where students now demand “safe havens” from emotionally unsettling opinions.

So monstrous a principle is far more dangerous than any single interference with liberty; there is no violation of liberty which it would not justify. …”

Near the conclusion of On Liberty, Mill describes, with genuine astonishment, “A theory of ‘social rights’ the like[s] of which probably never before found its way into distinct language: being nothing short of this—that it is the absolute social right of every individual that every other individual shall act in every respect exactly as he ought: that whoever fails thereof in the smallest particular violates my social right and entitles me to demand from the legislature the removal of the grievance. So monstrous a principle is far more dangerous than any single interference with liberty; there is no violation of liberty which it would not justify. …”

 

 

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