The progressives of today see themselves as the inheritors of the tradition of Western liberalism. They are the advocates of human freedom, liberating the individual from the shackles of the past and from superstition and prejudice. But too often they forget the foundations of the liberal tradition to which they pay homage. I suggest that they might with benefit turn to John Stuart Mill, to learn something of what “the liberty of thought and discussion” really means.

These thoughts are prompted by the furor generated by pasta king Guido Barilla’s interview in which he asserted that his company, now the largest supplier of pasta in both the United States and Italy, would continue to use only “traditional” families in its advertising and would “never” portray a “gay” family in its ads. His remarks led to worldwide efforts to boycott his company’s products to voice displeasure at the Barilla’s supposed bigotry.

What did Barilla say to touch off this tempest? First of all, he did not choose to remark upon this topic: it was his interviewer who chose to raise the issue of the ubiquity of traditional families in Barilla’s marketing. Barilla answered honestly, said that he supports the traditional family, and if gays did not like the fact that his advertising reflected that support, they were free to buy another pasta.

Barilla certainly made a strategic error and perhaps also revealed some animosity towards homosexuals. (Perhaps he may have just spoken thoughtlessly.) He would have been much better off saying, “If people do not like our advertising, they are free to buy another pasta.” There was no need for him to single out gays in his response, and doing so was rapidly turned against him. Reporters even went so far as to simply lift the second half of that sentence out of context and report Barilla as saying, “Gays can buy another pasta.” This ignoring of context verges on journalistic malpractice. Barilla’s other, more liberal, statements have been roundly ignored, for instance: “Io rispetto tutti facciano quello che vogliono senza disturbare gli altri”—“I respect all who do what they wish without disturbing others.” Or: “Nutro il massimo rispetto per gli omosessuali e per la libertà di espressione di chiunque”—“I have the utmost respect for homosexuals and the freedom of expression of anyone.”

Isn’t Barilla’s attitude what liberalism is supposed to be about? “Hey, our values differ, but we can live in peace so long as we accept the framework of liberal, civil order, which forbids us from using force to foist our values on others.” Isn’t this attitude precisely what ended the bloody religious conflict of the 16th and 17th centuries, the very crisis in European civilization that gave rise to liberalism?

None of the attacks, at least among those that I have seen, recommend legal sanctions against Barilla. But as John Stuart Mill understood a century-and-a-half ago, merely legal tolerance for diverse opinions does not suffice for creating a liberal climate of opinion. I think it is worthwhile to quote Mill in this regard at some length:

For it is this—it is the opinions men entertain, and the feelings they cherish, respecting those who disown the beliefs they deem important, which makes this country [England] not a place of mental freedom… It is [social] stigma which is really effective, and so effective is it, that the profession of opinions which are under the ban of society is much less common in England, than is, in many other countries, the avowal of those which incur risk of judicial punishment. In respect to all persons but those whose pecuniary circumstances make them independent of the good will of other people, opinion, on this subject, is as efficacious as law; men might as well be imprisoned, as excluded from the means of earning their bread… But though we do not now inflict so much evil on those who think differently from us, as it was formerly our custom to do, it may be that we do ourselves as much evil as ever by our treatment of them. Socrates was put to death, but the Socratic philosophy rose like the sun in heaven… Christians were cast to the lions, but the Christian church grew up a stately and spreading tree… 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… And thus is kept up a state of things very satisfactory to some minds, because, without the unpleasant process of fining or imprisoning anybody, it maintains all prevailing opinions outwardly undisturbed… But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.”
– J.S. Mill, On Liberty, Chapter II, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion” (Emphasis mine.)

As Mill clearly saw, purely legal tolerance for diversity of opinion is important, but not enough: if we wish to have “free and daring speculation on the highest subjects,” we must also be willing to socially tolerate divergent opinions. Of course, there are limits to such tolerance: advocating violence against gays and promising to devote pasta proceeds to that end would justly lead to a boycott, at the least, for that person himself is recommending the violation of the basic principle of liberal tolerance. But that is not Barilla’s stance at all: he wishes to cast his support behind the traditional family, but so long as those who disagree with him conduct themselves peacefully, he wishes them no harm. Surely that is the liberal position in this debate, while the position of those who would seek to economically ruin anyone who holds an opinion differing from theirs is the illiberal one.