Gene Callahan invokes John Stuart Mill to show that liberals boycotting Barilla—for its chairman’s views about homosexuals—are behaving illiberally. Mill not only favors legally free speech, but he’s sensitive (as some legalistic libertarians are not) to the illiberal power of social conformism. Interestingly, in the passage of On Liberty that Gene cites, Mill makes a rather social-democratic economic point that perhaps cuts against Gene’s position. Look again, with new emphasis added:

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. Those whose bread is already secured, and who desire no favours from men in power, or from bodies of men, or from the public, have nothing to fear from the open avowal of any opinions, but to be ill-thought of and ill-spoken of, and this it ought not to require a very heroic mould to enable them to bear.

Is Guido Barilla—chairman of and heir to the biggest pasta brand in the U.S. and Italy—really a victim of the tyranny of opinion, with his “bread” at risk from the stigma to which he’s subject? Unless his finances are a lot less secure than his pedigree and position would suggest, he’s more likely to be one of those “whose bread is already secured” and thus “have nothing to fear from the open avowal of any opinions, but to be ill-thought of and ill-spoken of…”

But that’s really a matter of interpretation. There’s a more fundamental point that needs to be brought out here that has nothing to do with how wealthy Mr. Barilla is or isn’t. Namely, Mill takes for granted that whether one is bravely bucking public opinion or cravenly enforcing it is a clear-cut matter. It’s not, and that’s why well-meaning people will reach different conclusions about a case like Barilla’s.

Quite apart from how secure Barilla’s bread might be, his supporters and detractors have a difference of perception about the direction from which the tyranny of public opinion arises. For Barilla’s supporters, he’s one man standing against a terrifyingly oppressive kind of organized public opinion—political correctness, which has reached such proportions that it can economically intimidate a spaghetti kingpin. For Barilla’s critics, however, the shoe is on the other foot: Barilla, his company, and his gay-free advertising are reinforcing a powerfully oppressive historical conformism against homosexuals. A Mill-style liberal who was anti-Barilla could argue, plausibly enough, that Barilla is enforcing the tyranny of opinion, not defying it.

This is one of many difficulties with Mill’s ideal, though an ideal of liberty isn’t necessarily the thing to be sought—liberalism may present itself as a rational, universal philosophy, but what it in fact has always been is an ex post facto justification for practices that maintain a modicum of peace and good feeling in certain particular settings. Be that as it may, one should guard against easy acquiescence to narratives of brave solitary noncomformists defying oppressive mass opinion because in many controversies the situation is actually mixed: competing kinds of conformism clash, and the man who’s a noncomformist one moment might be the most ruthless thought cop the next.

There’s another dimension to the question of oppressor and oppressed in the realm of opinion, however: anyone can feel magnanimous—indeed, liberal—by tolerating the occasional harmless freak. It’s precisely when discomfiting views are not those merely of a tiny minority that tolerance is put to the test. The ACLU can champion the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, safe in the knowledge that the Illinois Nazi Party isn’t about to seize control of the country. But if it were within striking distance of real power, would the same degree of toleration be wise?

Again, toleration is not really an abstract ideal, it’s a practice—a broadly good practice–that requires some knowledge of how the forces of money, mass opinion, and state coercion actually balance. There’s no freedom, including freedom of speech or even freedom of thought, that exists apart from the contexts of power.