Recently, President Trump was barred indefinitely from various social media platforms in a mass purge of conservative content creators, influencers, and politicians. Shares in Facebook and Twitter — among others — plummeted secondary to the President’s untimely ban, followed by an exasperated exodus of his supporters and their diaspora onto more esoteric mediums like Gab and Parler. Large swaths of Americans reacted to this ostensible infringement on free speech with visceral dismay — questioning who truly has the grasp on power in today’s America and whether the virtue of free speech still recuperates standing.
This sequence of events — and the evermore prevalent debate concerning internet censorship and free speech — circles back to a revolution in thought spearheaded by early-modern liberal and English philosopher John Stuart Mill. In his magnum opus On Liberty, Mill describes his conception of liberty when he writes, “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.” In other words, our only obligation to others is to remain indifferent to their fates and interests because this is how we can best leave each other equally free. This concept, designated by Mill as the “harm principle” or “harm theory,” was foreshadowed in effect by protoliberal Thomas Hobbes in his book De Cive, in which he writes, “from the earth like mushrooms and grown up (humans) without any obligation to each other.” Mill develops this premise in the aforementioned text when he speaks on what he calls the “despotism of custom” — which he defames as a “standing hindrance to human advancement” — and inquires to ascertain how to combat the shaping force so as to maximize liberty and exalt human flourishing.
In the exposition of On Liberty, Mill discusses government tyranny, which he deems an unquestionable and indelible evil that society requires to be on its guard. He then claims that the weight of public opinion is analogous to such tyranny — possibly even more disconcerting because it could one day be consecrated into law in a democratic society — and that the state must act accordingly. Informal mechanisms of social pressure and expectation could, in mass democratic societies, be all-controlling. He writes, “Society can and does execute its own mandates…. it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compels all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.”
Mill shifts the needle in regards to the role of government. Formerly rendered an impartial entity with the principal duty to protect negative freedoms — the state, along Millian lines, is used to forcefully disrupt the obtrusive, non-liberative vestiges of culture. Mill justifies a concentration of power in the direction of forcing its constituents to be free and indifferent. He thought that custom must be overruled, so the arcane who seek to live according to personal choices in the absence of social norms and decencies are at greatest liberty to do so. Mill’s logic is invoked today to substantiate legal chastisement for eschewing the use of trans preferred pronouns or restrictions on “hate speech” — a harsh reality in many Western countries — including especially America’s neighboring country, Canada. In sum, to achieve the anomalous condition of liberty articulated by John Stuart Mill, our actions and expressions must be limited, only to those that will promote our liberty while all else is suppressed.
The world in which we live parallels the ideal society proposed by Mill. Custom has been routed; vandalizing public art is legally sanctioned as an effort to temper the force of custom, while the employment of “micro-aggressions” is legally punishable as a purported infraction of liberty. The smidgens of culture that remain are derided incessantly by news pundits in the name of non-judgmentalism — in other words, society’s boundaries are now patrolled by those who claim there are no boundaries in the first place. Music and television work in tandem to advance the idea of the unconstrained Millian self. Rap music denigrates authority with unwarranted rancor — shown perhaps most infamously by N.W.A.’s hit song “Fuck Tha Police,” streams of which surged amid the George Floyd riots this past summer. On the contrary, television takes an impartial attitude towards adultery, prostitution, and pornography.
Patriot Politics is a 16-year-old paleoconservative activist, content creator, and freelance writer. He recently co-founded the advocacy organization “ConserveGenZ.”