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John Stuart Mill and Free Speech

Many young people today seem to believe that we do not have the right to express “wrong” ideas, particularly when it comes to race and sex, because to do so would be “harmful.” The idea that harmful speech should be restricted is not new. John Stuart Mill argued as much in On Liberty, Michael Mandelbaum writes:

On Liberty is an apt text for the present moment in another way. For Mill, liberty’s claim to protection rested not on its intrinsic importance but rather on its contribution to a higher good. That higher good was progress of the kind that expanded human welfare, which Mill defined as the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Here he differed from the founders of the United States, who considered freedom to be valuable for its own sake . . . Although their views are not models of clarity on this point, the present-day speech police apparently agree with Mill and not the founders of their own country. For them, too, expression is not a right—otherwise they would not seek to curtail it—but instead something to be permitted only insofar as it serves their higher purpose. That purpose is what they term ‘social justice,’ which seems to involve mainly considerations of race, ethnicity, and gender.

Yet, at least Mill believed that speech could only be deemed harmful if it were shown—through vigorous, open debate—to be so. Today’s woke mob doesn’t have time for this, however: “Mill makes a straightforward case for such liberty, which amounts to a version of the scientific method. An opinion or assertion may be true, but if so it will draw strength, conviction, and validity from being tested. Or it may be false and in need of correction, for which open investigation is necessary. Or it may be an amalgam of truth and falsehood, in which case the two must be differentiated. Mill’s central point is that testing, correction, and differentiation, all of them indispensable for the higher cause of progress contributing to human happiness, all require liberty of thought, of inquiry, and of expression . . . It is, for example, an empirical question whether defunding and thus abolishing the police, a current demand in some quarters, will enhance the justice of American society by bringing benefits to the groups whose interests justice requires serving. (Spoiler alert: it won’t.) Empirical questions can only be answered by research, discussion, criticism, and more research. Stifling them, therefore, by the very standards of the woke mob, contributes to injustice.”

In other news: “There is a tradition of books by intellectuals recounting their fallouts with their former friends,” Douglas Murray writes in his review of (former friend?) Anne Applebaum’s new book, Twilight of Democracy: “Applebaum, a former deputy editor of this magazine and justly celebrated historian, frames her memoir with two actual parties: one at her restored mansion in Poland on the eve of the millennium, the second at the same house in the summer of 2019. In the years between she has parted ways with many of the guests at the first celebration. All had been elated by the events of 1989 and hopeful about the post-communist future. Twilight of Democracy is her attempt to explain that divergence of ways. Perhaps predictably, she finds other people to be most at fault.”

The longlist for the Booker Prize has been announced. Here are the names.

Dante’s bones: “When Dante Alighieri died in Ravenna in September of 1321, he probably hoped to rest his bones for a good long time. A hard life of writing and factious Italian politics had culminated in nearly two decades of exile away from his birthplace in Florence, and it was in exile that he completed his greatest work, an epic of over 14,000 lines he called his Comedy. The poet’s remains did slumber quietly for two centuries in their stone tomb in Ravenna. But starting with the Renaissance, Dante’s mortal coil would find itself at the center of cloak and dagger plots, thefts, and the earthquake turmoil of Italian nation-building. Guy P. Raffa’s latest book, Dante’s Bones: How a Poet Invented Italy, tells us the story of Dante’s ‘graveyard history,’ and shows how the Florentine poet’s dead body became a focal point for an emerging Italy.”

History and style in Cormac McCarthy: “McCarthy’s work is magnificently oblivious to modern industrial and technological society and to the post-urban and suburban culture of consumerism, triviality and superficiality that are its fruits: the penalty a decadent civilization pays for its self-alienation from nature, humanity and metaphysical reality, and its embrace of an artificial world in which what is real and human withers and dries up, and art becomes well-nigh impossible. McCarthy’s solution for this basic artistic obstacle has been to set all of his novels with the exception of The Road — a post-apocalyptic story that occurs at some future unspecified date — either in the historical past, or in regional backwaters where modernity has barely penetrated, or both.”

The landline telephone was often used for dramatic effect in fiction. The cell phone? Not so much: “‘The telephone rang. It was an unusual hour for it to ring.’ These two sentences are drawn from Vladimir Nabokov’s short story ‘Symbols and Signs,’ which appeared in The New Yorker in 1948. They are functionally perfect sentences in a functionally perfect story. When the reader encounters them, an older couple is up late at night worrying about their son. Earlier that day, they’d gone to visit him, for his birthday, at the sanatorium where he lives. Once there, they were told that he had recently attempted suicide. A visit might upset him. The couple had returned home in silence; the father, unable to sleep, had decided that they would retrieve him the next day. This is when the phone rings, and when everything, we think, is about to change. But it doesn’t—the caller is a stranger, with the voice of a little girl. Wrong number, the wife says. The phone rings again. Same caller. The wife gives her instructions—‘You are turning the letter “o” instead of the zero’—and hangs up. The couple drink some tea. They admire their gift for their son. And then the story ends: ‘The phone rang again.’ I think of this story often, for all kinds of reasons, but mostly because of the silence punctuated by the surprising ring of the telephone. The sudden drama, the charge of meaning, the prospect of death conveyed before the call is even answered: this is the power that a phone—and a landline, especially—can hold. The landline is a source of suspense, of great and small action; it is the noise of the world entering almost supernaturally into a room. In fiction, it is a cherished and endangered device, one full of possibility. It could, after all, be anyone calling.”

Photo: Orschwiller

about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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