Sunday, 8 December 2013

A Free Society

The concept of a free society is not difficult to grasp. For me, it is nowhere more clearly spelled out than in John Stewart Mill's book 'On Liberty'. Although a nineteenth century work, its fundamental principle is still sound. It is this: everyone should be allowed to do what they want as long as it affects no-one but themselves; when one person's words or actions begin to impinge upon others, we should draw the line at significant harm.
That line is further away than one might think. We do not, for example, suffer significant harm when we are offended, not even if we become angry and start shouting. Indeed, by frightening others when we are angry we may do harm ourselves.  It also makes an important difference whether someone is trying to offend us or whether we are going out of our way to seek and take offence. Freedom of speech is more important than the feelings of any individual or any group, however deep those feelings may run. Neither we nor our views should be above criticism.
For Mill the line is crossed when the exercise of one person's freedom poses a direct threat to someone else. He has no concern when someone in a rational debate denounces profiteering by corn merchants. He would not allow the same words to be spoken by a rabble rouser whipping up a mob outside a corn merchant's house.
Today in Britain, freedom of speech is under threat from both reactionary and populist forces. Intolerance of dissent shows itself in unwillingness to listen to rational argument and the shouting down of contrary views. It shows itself in a determination to impose a viewpoint by compulsion upon those who cannot be persuaded by reason, or upon those with whom persuasion has not even been attempted. It shows itself in declarations that certain topics may not be discussed at all or that perceived dissenters must be punished unheard.
When we restrict freedom of speech we take a big step down the road to totalitarianism and its associated social stagnation and intellectual decay. We need to think more carefully before we permit steps in such a backward direction, however seemingly well motivated.