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Liberty of Speech, Action and Affiliation in John Stuart Mill’s Essay

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Dated as far back as Ancient Greece, society has long debated whether freedom of speech should be in the hands of the people. In this regard, difficult and controversial questions need to be asked to uphold the public interest rather than the interest of just our own personal preferences. Can we make these decisions and ensure it is not with intent to harm or oppress another? That we do all we can to seek the truth, regardless of whether we like what we hear or not? Do our choices overall help our society move forward in a positive way without constricting others from their human rights? These debates and decisions pose questions that not only are necessary for our progression as a society but uphold our duty to mankind. With that said, it can also be asked who is to say what is deemed “right” and what is deemed “wrong” – opinions of one individual may be incorrect in the eyes of another. This is where debate is crucial, facts and evidence must be presented as well as possessing a mannerism that can delegate their thoughts but be open to the opposed argument and viceversa. “On Liberty” provides reasonable substance to lay the groundwork and argue that free speech is necessary in today’s society. In analyzing liberty of speech, action and affiliation, which should hold no intent to harm another, it can be justifiable to say that society can thrive within these rights. This type of thinking allows our individual freedoms while encouraging one another to inquire further understanding of ourselves, our personal beliefs and investigate others opposed opinions.

One of our freedoms often taken for granted in today’s society is freedom of speech. A subject in which many people have mixed emotions and often hypocritical views on. Mill begins his essay discussing his take on freedom of speech and the restrictions that can be imposed on another due to their insights. He uses history to show us how over periods of time our governments began to form via democracy and free speech. Dating back to Ancient Greece, we observe how liberty came to be, a freedom that kept society safe from political tyrants. When a tyrannical ruler came into power, more often than not, he would look out for his own needs before his peoples. The famous historian Herotodus reflected this in his writings: Histories, 3.80 -83, we can see that monarchy was not creating equal laws for everyone and helped begin their debate on what type government was needed .

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Although equality and free speech had a long way to go, this was a pivotal point in history where society started to take a more democratic and liberated approach. With this being said, as we look at Mill’s introduction we see that not only was the public to be protected from tyrannical figures but from the public itself. Mill states “Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues the wrong mandates instead of right … it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression.” This public majority can suppress the views of those in the minority. Moving forward into his argument, we begin to dissect cause for freedom of speech in society. Most importantly, it is said that by restricting freedom of speech we are doing not just a disservice to ourselves as an individual but as well as humanity. While you can assume you’re correct in an argument, Mill would suggest that refusing an opposing argument of their truth is to assume your truth is “infallible” and of “absolute certainty”. This type of restrictive thinking stops not just one person but mankind from growing and seeking the truth. If we accept one truth as fact and brush all others off, there is nothing to challenge our theories, no way to grow and learn. This is but one example of the type of harm that could come from limiting freedom of speech. As a society, these opinions, right or wrong, can produce truth and facts over time by being challenged. As Mill states “In the case of any judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him…” We deprive ourselves of knowledge and learning if we remain ignorant to the opinions of others. While one may argue that “certain beliefs so useful…to well-being that it is as much the duty of the government to uphold those beliefs as to protect any other of the interest of society” it can be rebutted that this is where debate and discussion is a useful way to seek the truth. This is how freedom of speech impacts our society, and in turn enables the next rational step in our behaviors; free will.

As we move forward into Mill’s essay, he proposes that free will needs to accompany free speech in order to be truly liberated. Mill points out once again, the only restriction is that with free will as with free speech, we do no harm to another. As briefly discussed by Mill in his prior argument, action and experience adds value to our beliefs, it strengthens the truth in that which we speak. Our individual truth shapes our views, values, who we are and guides how we act and in turn all those reciprocate by reinforcing that truth. Mill continues to say without our free will to act and make decisions of our own is to take away our individuality. It is within our experiences that we learn and expand on these lessons that life gives us through experience. “…it would be absurd to pretend that people ought to live as if nothing whatever had been known in the world before they came into it; as if experience has as yet done nothing towards showing that one mode of existence, or of conduct…”. What are we to learn if we do not make choices out of our own free will? If we don’t make mistakes to learn from? He relates this idea to stepping outside of conformity, that with finding individuality we can grow and learn.

To control behavior, is to devoid the human experience of exploring new ways of being; to isolate or segregate can destroy cultural differences. Mill suggests that with “individuality and development together, cultivating these create well developed human beings.” and depriving society of this would be a hindrance to ourselves. He points out that the persons of genius are of the minority and they are “…more individual than any other person”. For example, take the two brilliant physicists Sir Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday who questioned things outside of the seen world. Both failed time and time again in their experiments but still continued to work for ground breaking discoveries. Would these geniuses had evolved in a world that kept them limited or conformed? To quote Joel H. Hildebrand from his speech Education for Creativity in Science “How fortunate for civilization, that Beethoven, Michelangelo, Galileo and Faraday were not required by law to attend schools where their total personalities would have been operated upon to make them learn acceptable ways of participating as members of “the group.” If we are to nurture individuals creativity and individuality, then we must allow free will. Developing our free will leads us to finding those who are like minded but also those who can challenge us, helping us grow ideas and beliefs by association. While free will and free speech are necessary, we must also have freedom of association to share our beliefs and individuality as our beliefs shape ideas, morals and opinions. Therefore by having the freedom to be a part of organizations that share our thoughts, this further helps to cultivate our ideas.

To deny diversity and different views robs us of experience, and a chance for us to learn and expand onto such beliefs or ideas. However, as earlier stressed, all freedoms to speak, act or associate must not impose any harm on another. While we can be open to a set of ideas, we can close ourselves off to another. One example of this close mindedness can be brought forth by Socrates, where in which a man who now is called on for his philosophical work, was put to death for speaking his opinion. His opinions regarding a doctrine of religious views were so obscure to society that they deemed this blasphemy and deemed him as a corrupter of youth. This punishment demonstrates the physical harm that can occur based on this type of closed mindedness. We can see this in relation to current religious controversies such as ISIS or Al Queda. While they’re religious viewpoints are valid, in past experiences, the extremist groups have executed those who are not in agreement with their views. Intrinsically speaking, limiting freedom of speech oppresses not just one person but progression forward for society as a whole.

Now with all that being said, along with the notion that we do no harm with our words, Mill suggests that we live by the words that support these views, stating “Beliefs not grounded on conviction are apt to give way before the slightest semblance of an argument.” If we are to be impactful with our beliefs then we must uphold them through carrying out into action. He demonstrates this through Christianity in the Roman Era compared to Christianity in today’s modern day. Where in the Roman Era people more so than not followed their beliefs strictly and with that they’re beliefs and arguments of debate upheld a value. Today an argument can be easily built up against someone following a religious background that does not truly practice their beliefs. Questions arise to if the individual fully believes their doctrines, fully understands the ideologies or if they truly support ideas that they don’t even practice. At this point it is referred to as “…dead dogma…” and the individuals view point loses its validity in a debate. Overall, any objection against Mill’s arguments up to now can be defended with the reasoning that to take away freedom of speech it is harmful to not just one but all of society. Regardless if the opinion is right, wrong or partially right/wrong, we open up a doorway for debate and further ourselves as a society to finding out the truth.

Overall, while assessing all that Mill has given us to think about and question, one could say his arguments are strongly supported. He makes suggestions against himself with objections that could arise to combat his theories. He is thorough while having an openness to look at his beliefs and challenge them with other arguments that could come from the readers points of view. Mill stands firm believing that society should be liberated and free to speak and act as they like without cause of harm to others. One can agree that Mill’s argument is sustainable and accurate. With free speech, free will and freedom to affiliate with those who hold similar beliefs, we can find ourselves becoming a more liberated society.


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