Free Speech Martyrs in History I: The Greek, Research Time, 08/02/2017

So what are the justifications of free speech, when you go back to John Stuart Mill himself?

You can start with the standard Mill that everybody gets in their undergrad classes. Freedom of opinion and its expression, even and especially when it’s unpopular, is necessary for a functional society for the following three reasons.

We learn about the heroes and martyrs of freedom and justice as if
freedom and justice were the same. While they go together, and each is
the condition of the other's possibility, they aren't the same. Here's
Nelson Mandela, one of the world's most famous rebels against
1) Some opinion contrary to the popular belief is actually the truth, and can correct a mistaken mainstream.

2) Some opinion contrary to the popular belief is false and the mainstream is true, but the challenge of those contrary ideas is needed to keep a popular truth from calcifying into an oppressive dogma.

3) Both the popular opinion and its challenger are true, and no one understands either well enough to see how they properly complement each other. But with enough work, determination, and hard public thought, the two sides of the issues can reach a new perspective where their alliance becomes natural.

Already, I’ve gone beyond the usual account of Mill’s justification of freedom of opinion. The textbooks* rarely go beyond Reason One: Some minority beliefs will turn out to be true after all.

* I really do think that humanities textbooks – the collections of excerpts and short essays, not the actual full books – are written under the presumption that students are stupid. This is why I never used a textbook in any low-level classes where I could make that call.

So this is the popular mainstream opinion about what Mill had to say about freedom of opinion. And it’s a pretty accurate view of the general popular dogma about freedom of opinion – don’t oppress my opinion, because it might turn out that you’re wrong, I’m right, and I’m entitled to my opinion anyway.

This is Kim Dae Jung in the 1970s, at a rally speaking against South
Korea's dictator Park Chung Hee. Kim spent his life as a crusader for
democracy in Korea, and went from serving several years as a
political prisoner to serving a five year term as President of the
Republic of Korea.
Except you aren’t entitled to it. Because only a few pages after going through these three reasons for freedom of opinion, Mill describes how you aren’t entitled to your opinion. It’s because every opinion should be open to critique, not just from other arguments and analyses, but from real facts that could disprove your opinion.

You’re free to form your own opinion, but you aren’t entitled never to have that opinion challenged or critiqued. That goes for mainstream popular opinion, and the opinions of isolated cranks and rebels.

But Mill is more often treated as a resource and a justification to shut down any oppression of opinion. On Liberty is, in many ways, an argument against silencing opinions. And there are many reasons why opinions can be silenced.

Mill lived in the 19th century, after all. There were plenty of dictatorships kicking around 1850s Europe – they were monarchies, but had either openly absolutist rulers or powerless parliaments. And there were plenty of oppressive theological disputes throughout Europe too.

So there were plenty of institutions and governments who were oppressing plenty of ostensibly free opinions. With all that in mind, who’s the first example Mill cites at length of a society harmed by the suppression of opinions critical to the mainstream?

A historically accurate depiction of Socrates.
The death of Socrates, the foundational story of Western philosophy. Mill depicts Socrates as the man who would have been a personal founder of a Greek Enlightenment, if the Athenian assembly hadn’t executed him for sedition against popular dogma.

The image of Socrates in the narratives of Plato – and the image that inspired the entire Western philosophical tradition – is the challenger of unquestioned dogma. And that dogma was false, or at least so simple as to become flimsy as moist tissue.

The least question could knock away the foundations of popular Greek moral dogmas. All it took was one reasonably insightful persistent critic – someone who wouldn’t give up pressing for deeper conceptions of what was taken for granted.

Socrates was a martyr for freedom of opinion in Mill’s telling. But look at the content of what he said and did. Socrates’ demand was that his society justify their moral beliefs – don’t just believe dogma because it’s given to you, because dogmatic belief leads to injustice. He was an advocate to build a more just, fair, enlightened society.

Which is different from freedom. Which is truth. . . . To be continued

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