Against the tyranny of the majority

John Stuart Mill on why we need to awake from the ‘deep slumber of decided opinion’.

My essay On Liberty, written during the 1850s, was not really concerned with the threat posed to individual subjects by the whims of powerful rulers. Things had changed a great deal since my liberal predecessors were battling monarchical tyranny. By the mid-nineteenth century, we were living in an increasingly democratic society, albeit one that hadn’t quite got around to extending the franchise to either women or vast swathes of the working class. Still, the state was meant to embody the will of the people, or at least the will of the vast majority of those eligible to vote. And it was this fact, which, as far as I could see, blunted the age-old conflict between ruler and ruled. Rulers were now subject to the power of the ruled. 

But I was bothered by something, and I felt it was something new: a threat to freedom, to liberty that stemmed not from the tyranny of the all-powerful few, be they monarchs or oligarchs, but from what I called the tyranny of the majority. That is what concerned me – and looking around today, it still does.

It wasn’t just that a government elected on the basis that it represented the interests of the majority might implement policies and laws that prove detrimental to a minority. No, what bothered me about the tyranny of the majority was that it could also affect thought and opinion – the interior life of the individual, no less. The tyranny of the majority quickly becomes a tyranny of opinion. As I put it in On Liberty, ‘this could fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with [the majority’s] ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own’.

A society based upon the rule of the many could, in short, induce conformity: conformity of behaviour; and conformity of thought and speech. And conformity, as I saw it, was bad for individuals and, ultimately, bad for society.

What I wanted to defend, what I wanted to reassert the importance of, was, of course, liberty as a whole, but especially ‘liberty of thought and discussion’. I wanted to explain why a society in which even the most lapidary of truths are always open to question, in which dissent and offence-giving is tolerated, is a vibrant, vital society, a society in which individuality can flourish rather than, as it seemed to be doing, wither.

And that’s what worried me about nineteenth-century English society. Too many people were willing to take ideas as given. Too many were willing to assume that customary opinions, that the principles of the right-thinking, were correct. Too many were willing to take the opinions and feelings of the majority as their own. ‘Where there is a tacit convention that principles are not to be disputed’, I wrote, ‘where the discussion of the greatest questions which can occupy humanity is considered to be closed, we cannot hope to find that generally high scale of mental activity which has made some periods of history so remarkable’. Think of the post-Reformation flourishing of arts and science, think of the Germany of Goethe and Fichte. These were periods of profound intellectual fermentation, produced in part by the collapse of an extant authority, when men’s minds stirred, and soared, amid a great questioning.

And that’s what I wanted to encourage: a great questioning. That does not mean I believed that nothing was ever really true. Rather, I meant that it was only through the thorough interrogation of a principle or belief, that the truth can be established. The tendency of a conformist society to silence or inhibit dissenting views was, ironically enough, the enemy of truth-seeking. Or, as I put it at the time: ‘There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation.’ Or, as you fellows say today, ‘you can’t say that’.

A society in which ‘you can’t say that’, a society that discourages dissent, that inhibits questioning, will tend to sink into the ‘deep slumber of decided opinon’. This is the opposite of a great questioning; it is a great stagnation. And even the highest truth, if left uncontested, will sink into mere prejudice.

For a truth to be living, for a principle to be vital, it needs people willing to challenge and question it. Not because they are necessarily right, but because a challenge forces the recipients of that challenge to think through and argue their own position. In responding to the challenge, no matter how offensive, they exercise their own reason, their own moral autonomy, and, as a result, they think through this or that opinion or principle as their own, not that of someone else.

But if received opinions, if accepted truths, are left unchallenged, they will ossify, regardless of their rectitude. When I was thinking of this process of ossification, I thought of the transformation of Christianity, thanks to its refusal to tolerate dissent, from a living set of religious truths into mere doctrine. ‘Instead of a vivid conception and a living belief’, I wrote, ‘there remains only a few phrases retained by rote; or, if any part, the shell and husk only of the meaning is retained, the finer essence being lost’.

Today, a similar desiccation of the truth is at work. Certain contemporary principles or opinions, widely held, but rarely questioned, have become, in effect, unthought. It could be the idea of diversity, or child protection, or the environment, or even democracy. But the refusal to tolerate challenges to these ideas, by stigmatising the dissenter as anything from a ‘denier’ to a pervert, removes from the ideas’ advocates the responsibility of having to think. ‘Truth gains more’, I wrote, ‘even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think’. We need the free speech of others to prick our complacency.

Without freedom of speech, without a willingness to welcome questioning and dissent, truth petrifies – and society stagnates. The answer to the stultifying effect of social conformity is to encourage individuality, to welcome all thought and discussion. As I put it all those many moons ago, ‘It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation’.

As told to Tim Black.

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