The Value of Immoral and Factually Incorrect Speech

This article uses John Stuart Mill’s arguments for free expression to analyze campus activism, and in particular the original incident regarding use of gender pronouns that catapulted Jordan Peterson into the spotlight. Moreover, I use Mill’s arguments to make a larger commentary regarding left-wing campus activism (from the perspective of someone on the political left with personal experience in activist spaces) and how it seems to have lost faith in, and forgotten about, the benefits of a liberal society based on individual rights. In particular, it has forgotten the way a liberal society allows for people who think differently than others to have a voice. I also contrast this with the idea that society should be based on collectives (social rights) rather than individuals, something campus activists often gesture toward, and show how Mill argues against this.

Recent debates about free speech on university campuses have been contentious and confused. Instead of a productive debate, we see battle lines being traced along a cultural battlefront. Those purporting to defend free speech tend to characterize campus activists as totalitarian radicals while campus activists argue that defenders of free speech are just using their stance as a way of furthering a veiled fascist and racist agenda. Under such conditions, the first casualty is often nuanced thinking. To be sure, in some instances claims on both sides contain some measure of validity. However, due to the inflammatory nature, such distinctions are generally lost. With increased discussions regarding the legitimacy of free speech in civil society and on university campuses – specifically its potential to contribute to systematic oppression – it is worth revisiting the value and potential harm of free expression.

John Stuart Mill is most directly associated with comprehensively defending free speech. In On Liberty Mill defends free expression on the following grounds. First, Mill’s harm principle would tend toward allowing free expression on the grounds that state interference with the liberty of citizens is only justified insofar as it prevents harm to other citizens. Mill also argues for the social benefit associated with people exercising their higher deliberative capacity, something that can only be properly accomplished by the free and open discussion afforded in the context of a liberal society that protects individual rights.

Harmful Language on Campus          

Let me begin by outlining the idea that language has the potential to do harm to the extent that we can morally justify interfering with it. Although Jordan Peterson has been saturating the internet of late, I am interested in exploring the original incident that catapulted him into the spotlight. That is, his refusal to use gender neutral pronouns in response to what he perceived as compelled speech legislation (note: there are reasons for thinking the law would not compel speech at all, and Peterson misunderstood the scope of the revisions to the Ontario Human Rights Code). In a heated panel discussion on the Canadian public television program, The Agenda, Professor Nicholas Matte questioned Peterson’s characterization of the controversy by saying “I don’t agree with why Dr. Peterson has been asked to stop abusing students on campus.” Host Steve Paikin interjected, “Can I be clear on something? You’ve accused him of abusing students by not using the pronouns students wish to be addressed by.” Matte responded by stating “That’s how I see it, yes… when someone refuses to recognize someone’s dignity.”

While few explicitly endorse the idea that government intervention in speech is necessary, there is often an effort on campuses to de-platform those speaking about ideas perceived to be harmful, and effectively rally a movement to silence. The rationale is that it is better for such ideas to be silenced on the grounds that they have already been utterly discredited, and their continued discussion serves only to cause harm. For example, in the same episode of The Agenda host Steve Paikin mentioned that he had originally booked a guest (who remained anonymous). However, that person ultimately decided not to participate and offered the following explanation.

Giving Peterson this platform serves to legitimize his views which are based on bigotry and misinformation. The humanity and rights of transgender, non-binary, and intersex people are not a matter of debate, and holding a debate which places a false equivalency between the views expressed by Peterson and the human rights concerns of the trans community would be an act of transphobia. Therefore none of us wish to participate in this.

This demonstrates the strong, and quite common claim in many activist spaces, that even discussing an idea legitimizes it to the extent that it can potentially cause great harm. Of course, it needs to be noted that what Peterson raised, at least originally, had nothing to do with whether trans people are human or should enjoy basic rights, but rather, whether certain language use ought to be enforced by law.

Another example of this brand of thinking appeared in a recent Vice News segment exploring why comedians have generally stopped booking shows at university campuses. As a Simmons College entertainment booker explained when discussing the appropriateness of jokes about gender and sexual assault, “my job is to reduce student harm as much as humanly possible. ”Interviewer Michael Moynihan followed up by asking “You think people are harmed by jokes?” To which the booker responded, “I think they can be.”

Language and Systematic Oppression

In order to avoid constructing a straw-man, I want to fairly and plausibly unpack some arguments that I think are underlying the above claims. Avoiding a digression into the intricacies of gender theory, I think the harmfulness of speech described above can be best understood when thinking about cultural value patterns. The idea is that some language use contributes to cultural value patterns and consequently can strengthen potentially arbitrary social hierarchies. For example, heteronormative and binary language reinforces existing patterns of value and the social illegitimacy of marginal identities – i.e. gender non-conforming, queer, and other LGBTQ+ identities. This leads to feelings of humiliation and ultimately, a real systematic disadvantage such that individuals are unable to pursue their life in a satisfying and healthy way. We might even say that such language interferes with a person’s sphere of autonomy insofar as their marginalized identities don’t fit within dominant cultural value patterns, effectively narrowing their sphere. Thus, insofar as speech calls into question the legitimacy of non-binary gender identity, it is reinforcing dominant patterns of value and harming those who do not fit.

I happen to think this theory of social oppression is hard to disagree with. Those who deny the possibility of such experiences of oppression are likely missing, or possibly willfully ignoring, a basic moral intuition – it is obviously humiliating to not fit in. What really ought to be of issue is not whether such experiences of oppression happen, but how, in a liberal society, ought we respond. Of course, there are those on the activist left who see liberal society, especially because of its colonial roots, as a central part of the problem. This is, I think, where revisiting Mill’s defence of free expression and liberal society becomes salient. In what follows I will reconstruct Mill’s basic defence of free expression and derive a Millean response to the idea that some language is so dangerous it ought to be silenced. Instead, I think Mill would argue that liberal society is not only a good in itself, but also that it is actually the only environment where oppression can plausibly be discussed, and where the process of addressing it can occur.

Mill’s Definition of Harm

Mill’s definition of harm is not always clear in the text. At the beginning of Chapter IV, Mill explains that

As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question of whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion (p. 73).

A few pages later Mill elaborates by saying that

Encroachment on their rights; infliction on them of any loss or damage not justified by his own rights; falsehood or duplicity in dealing with them; unfair or ungenerous use of advantages over them; even selfish abstinence from defending them against injury – these are fit objects of moral reprobation, and, in grave cases, of moral retribution and punishment (p. 76).

At first glance there are reasons to think Mill’s definition of harm would acknowledge that language can plausibly cause harm to marginalized identities insofar as it is preventing citizens from enacting a satisfying plan for life. In particular, it might be tempting to argue that some kinds of language express an “unfair use of advantage” or functions as a substantive interference with “the interests of others.” In this case, the interest marginalized identities have in enacting their identity fully and unmolested. Ultimately, I think Mill would admit that some language probably does contribute to harm. However, as I will argue below, it is unlikely Mill would think it reaches a sufficient level, proportionately speaking, to warrant interference. In fact, Mill makes some important arguments defending the value of even immoral and factually incorrect speech. To demonstrate this, let’s consider Mill’s main arguments for the morality of protecting free expression.

Mill on Human Fallibility and Free Expression

Mill begins with the idea that social and moral truths can only be determined by open discussion and consideration, coupled with the fact that human beings are fallible, and so, vulnerable to making mistakes. Mill points to the history of individuals and cultures and how they have never been infallible, and “It is as certain that many opinions, now general, will be rejected by future ages, as it is that many, once general, are rejected by the present” (p. 20). While human judgement is fallible and prone to mistake this is not a rationale for losing faith in deliberation. On the contrary, it is a rationale for perpetually scrutinizing opinion to ensure that individual and political decisions are made on the basis of best available information (pp. 21-22). This is why Mill argues that “the steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others… is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it” (p. 22). Moreover, the only reliable way of encouraging this habit is through open discussion, since according to Mill, experience alone is insufficient – “There must be discussion to show how experience is to be interpreted” (p. 22).

Relevant to the case of Peterson and other campus efforts to de-platform, Mill strongly opposed censoring opinions that are either immoral or that we have good reasons to believe false. Following from the idea that humans are fallible yet progressively tend toward improvement, there is always a chance that a censored opinion might turn out to be true (as a survey of history demonstrates) (p. 21). The defence of immoral and false opinion offered thus far is, I think, only marginally convincing. Luckily, Mill makes what I think is a much stronger argument against censoring immoral opinions. Any opinion, even if demonstrably true, loses its value when it becomes dogma. That is, when opinion becomes convention we cease to understand the reasons for why we believe it. As Mill puts it

However unwilling a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth (p. 35).

Mill points to learning and applying geometry as an analogy for a “living truth.” “Persons who learn geometry do not simply commit theorems to memory, but understand and learn likewise the demonstrations” (p. 36). While Mill acknowledges that political and moral matters are significantly more complex, he wants to show that they can be analogously demonstrated by “studying [an] adversary’s case with as great, if not still greater, intensity than even [one’s] own” (p. 37, my emphasis). And ultimately Mill thinks that liberty and free expression is the condition that best secures this practice.

The Gender Pronoun Controversy: A Millean Response

Based on the above outline of Mill’s defence of free expression, I think we can construct a plausible reply to the idea that some language is harmful to the point that it justifies interference. It must be acknowledged that on Mill’s account preventing someone from speaking is a prime facie harm. Thus, we have to have strong grounds for thinking such an infringement on expression is justified by a substantive and detectable harm. In the gender pronoun example, an important consideration is that identity formation is complicated, ambiguous, and still not totally understood. Moreover, the extent to which speech contributes to cultural value patterns is hard (if not impossible) to measure. If this is the case, and human reason is fallible and potentially open to revision, Mill would want to default to the side of encouraging open and free discussion. He seems to suggest as much in the earlier-mentioned quote arguing that once an issue appears to interfere with the interests of others (in this case, discussing the value of gender categories), the appropriate reaction is to consider the issue “open to discussion” (p. 73). For this reason, I also think Mill would find the practice of de-platforming someone because they are discussing (or questioning) gender categories immoral. For him the ultimate arbiter should be open discussion. Indeed, claiming that something is not open to debate, as the would-be guest on The Agenda did, risks making of it what Mill would call “a dead dogma.” In contrast, a healthy society ought to be built on living truths – ideas that we understand (or have easy access to) the grounds for believing them.

At this point I want to apply the above Millean insights by testifying to some of my own experiences on university campuses. As someone who is sympathetic to leftist politics and agrees that cultural value patterns do contribute to oppression, the time I did spend in activist spaces left me fairly disillusioned. All too often the common attitude among activists, grounded in a kind of moral superiority, was to dismiss the value of critical thinking and debate. Too many times I would hear people say things like “It’s not my job to explain to white people why white privilege is a thing” or “There’s no point in arguing when trans lives are on the line.”Isn’t it exactly at this point, the point when we want to precipitate social change or when lives are on the line, that we should want to argue vehemently and persuasively? There are good strategic reasons for wanting to be adept at debating an issue as well. Activists are not doing themselves any favours by refusing to discuss as it only feeds into the deleterious caricature of leftist totalitarian radicals.

The Contemporary Campus Left and Social Rights

Unfortunately, the refusal of campus activists to participate in debate is indicative of what I see as a much deeper problem with the current state of left-wing politics on campus. Much of the campus left seems to have lost faith in debate, as a consequence of losing faith in the benefits that individual rights offer. They have tended to reject the idea of the individual and the importance of rights as somehow tainted by the evils of, for example, colonialism and white supremacy. Instead, they tend to gesture toward a vaguely defined anarchistic-collective imaginary future (one that transcends all colonial and white supremacist taint) where the priority of the individual is replaced, through revolution, by some kind of socially harmonious whole.

Mill actually spent some time problematizing the idea of social rights as a potential alternative. His description, derived from arguments made at the time in favor of prohibiting alcohol, sound strikingly similar to a line of argument we hear from activists on campus today. Proponents at the time would claim that legalized alcohol (today we might replace with “discussing gender pronouns”) “impedes my right to free moral and intellectual development, by surrounding my path with dangers, and by weakening and demoralizing society, from which I have a right to claim mutual aid and intercourse”(p. 87).

Mill goes on to summarize the theory of social rights as

the absolute social right of every individual that every other individual shall act in every respect exactly as he ought; that whosoever fails thereof in the smallest particular, violates my social right, and entitles me to demand from the legislature the removal of the grievance (p. 87).

I think Mill would worry that limiting speech on such collective grounds risks devolving into totalitarianism. Mill condemned grounding society in social rights as “so monstrous a principle… for, the moment an opinion I consider noxious passes any one’s lips, it invades all the “social rights” attributed to me,” (p. 87) because social rights depends on the idea of a harmonious whole.

Mill and the Priority of the Individual

For Mill, there are a number of reasons why the individual should take moral priority over a social collective. Aside from the risk of totalitarianism, human improvement is predicated on an ability to exercise the deliberative capacity. Prioritizing individual rights is the only environment that affords people the opportunity to think differently (p. 58). This is why Mill spends a significant amount of time discussing originality and genius. According to Mill, “genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom” (p. 64). This is because a society that prioritizes collective social rights will tend toward suspicion of independent thinkers that challenge the integrity of the harmonious whole.

Leftist hostility toward liberalism is rather puzzling when we consider the quite obvious fact that activism (gender, and of all kinds) itself is indebted to exactly the kinds of independent creative individuals that call the whole of society into question, and the conditions that allowed them to write and speak freely and openly (like Angela Davis, Judith Butler, and Simone De Beauvoir). In this way it is the very idea of liberalism, with its prioritization of the individual and independent deliberative capacity, that, at least in part, serves as the foundational precondition for critical activism and conversations about oppression (I would also argue, unique approaches to theory, like post-colonial theory). This is why I would claim that liberal society and free expression, on balance, benefit society and actually functions as the best condition for activism, and the best environment for combating right-wing extremism, itself based on the dream of a kind of harmonious whole. I fear that the growing animus toward “liberalism” and “individualism” in left-wing activist circles is tantamount to sawing at the very tree branch they sit on. And it should be no surprise that far-right figures like Richard Spencer and Alexander Dugin are taking advantage of the situation and employing strikingly similar critiques of liberalism.

Some Millean Advice for the Campus Left

Instead of demanding that a speaker be silenced, demand that they speak only if they are willing to have their ideas debated in an open forum. If this were the common practice, and activists, instead of silencing, would follow Mill’s advice and “[study an] adversary’s case with as great, if not still greater, intensity than even [one’s] own,” I think an incredibly powerful message would be sent. What would all those right-wing alarmists like Tucker Carlson and Steven Crowder say now about all the “campus craziness?” “These activists are out of control! They keep wanting to debate all our guest speakers! They are violently demanding an open and thoughtful dialogue!” This would function to deflate right-wing claims of campus victimization – possibly one of the most effective right-wing mobilization tactics.

Consider the possible outcome of demanding debate instead of silencing. Assuming activists do the work of carefully studying an adversary’s case, I anticipate three possible outcomes – all beneficial. It could be that their view would be found to be clearly false and harmful, partially false but also somewhat true, or indeed substantially true. In the first case the adversary should easily be made to look foolish, in the second it would be clear that the topic really does warrant further discussion, or in the third, benefit follows from realizing an error (possibly because the adversary’s positions were misrepresented in the first place). All cases seem to be preferable to silencing. Admittedly, this is predicated on exercising good debate skills, and learning opposing views, something that seems lacking in the currently charged climate. All the more reason that activists should get to work. After all, activism should consist in more than just righteous anger, but hopefully also thoughtful analysis and engagement of ideas that, at the surface, might seem offensive.

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  1. Good essay by the way, don’t take my criticism wrong. And Mill was a great thinker. One of the premises of the essay is that people who are trying to shut speech down are acting in good faith. Sometimes this is not the case. Some are so extreme that anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders is a Nazi. We cannot allow such people to rule us. Some are hysterical types to whom the slightest offense causes crying and they need a safe space. This is not adult behavior. Some are simply bullies and don’t really care what the issue is. You can see this when you point out that that the cause they are promoting is actually hurting black people (or whatever). They don’t care about that. Some are delusional. Finally, some are fatally ill-informed. Like the people who defaced the Joan of Arc statue in new Orleans or the Lincoln statue in Chicago or those who seem to believe that slavery only ever happened in America.

    1. I agree with you that some are not acting in good faith. However, I do think it’s important we aren’t too quick to demonize the other side. I spent a significant amount of time in what you would think (and I also probably think) are ‘radical leftist’ activist spaces. My conclusion from that time was that the source of the ‘bad faith’ is not intentionally malicious, but comes from a sincere place. Often it’s personal trauma that gets redirected toward politics. I remember realizing once in a ‘very activist’ seminar that it felt more like a group therapy session than an inquiry into knowledge/politics (although this wasn’t said, I got the impression that many of my classmates were likely victims of sexual violence, etc.). My feeling was that very real pain gets externalized in the form of political activism, and that often leads to mistakes in thinking, and ultimately unfair demonization of the other side (conservative), because internal pain/anger needs to go somewhere, after all, we are all human. I also think the same thing is often the case on the radical right. Internal pain is directed toward politics. I might get in trouble with leftists by arguing we should also not be so quick to demonize young people who get caught up in the radical right, neo-nazism. Often what you find in those people is a similar pattern of internal pain/angst being redirected toward politics (for example former neo-nazi Christian Picciolini https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSH5EY-W5oM). Obviously that doesn’t mean we don’t call out bad ideas, but I think it’s also more intellectually honest to keep this all in mind, and adopt a discourse that acknowledges this, rather than just angrily calling people out for being in bad faith (because that won’t work). I guess my main point is that we should avoid dehumanizing those who seem to have fallen victim to ‘bad faith’ as the source of it is often something very human, and not actually malicious.

  2. I must disagree with the authors “condition” for conservative speakers that they only speak on campus at a debate. The whole premise of outrage is wrong. No one lives a life and holds only opinions that everyone agrees with. Some people think single motherhood and abortion are ok but others think these cause horrible outcomes. Some people think gang culture is dandy. Some rail against white people. There is no way to come to a harmonious culture if someone’s outrage matters. In particular, it seems that only Leftist outrage counts–opposition to abortion is to be shut down, even though killing babies should give everyone pause. What we need is the recognition that people have different values, needs, and opinions (and–I know hard to believe–these change over time). People are losing their jobs and getting assaulted not because they actually discriminated against someone but because of wrongthink or symbols like supporting Trump with a MAGA hat. So a conservative speaker should be able to give his speech and if you don’t like it DON’T GO.

    1. I happen to be speaking from a left-wing perspective, but I didn’t mean for it to sound like I think conservatives should ONLY be able to speak if they are exposed to debate. I only meant that in cases when a speaker is perceived to be controversial it would be better for campus activists to demand debate rather than to silence. So it’s kind of a strategic point for leftists, not a proposed universal moral rule.

  3. The “language = harm” assertion leads to the forcing of people to say things they do not believe. It is not enough for the Left that they are tolerated, they want to be affirmed, celebrated. Anything less is “hate”. But in a diverse society, not everyone will approve of your lifestyle no matter what you do. There are people who make fun of married people, of “breeders” (a gay slur against those having children), some people like some don’t like tattoos or beards or being vegetarian. These demands for affirmation are unreasonable and reflect a thin skinned attitude.
    The point about people not being qualified–few are qualified on all the topics they speak on and thus say idiotic and untrue things at times. How would we possibly vet everyone for which topics they may speak on? The best cure for people saying lies (intentional or not) or idiotic things is an open market for ideas. I have vetted Thomas Sowell and trust his research (most of the time anyway). I do not believe anything in the NYT. That is the cure.

  4. I would just like to point out that the original pronoun issue, that one must use proper pronouns to respect people’s dignity, is an impossible request even if it were not oppressive. I have known thousands of people in my life. In most cases I did not catch their names, did not know about their sexuality or even their marital status. Now add in that there are numerous “pronouns” (which really should be terms of address: viz Mr. Ms, Mrs.) and the demand that we refer to people properly is simply impossible. Consider a campus with 40,000 people. How can I know something particular about all those people?

  5. I think the activists in question would take issue with your three possible outcomes. It’s based on the assumption that correct ideas win out, but to many activists, that hardly appears to be the case. The majority is generally going to do what’s in the majority’s interest. Most would argue that the Civil Rights Movement didn’t happen because of some new intellectual argument that made people decide to stop being racist, but because through protests, they put constant pressure on those in power to change. When the change finally came, it came from the federal government forcing the South to change, despite their bitter resistance. Southerners didn’t change their mind, they had the changes forced upon them, but a generation later, the children who grew up in communities that protected African American civil rights (because they were forced to) and attended more integrated schools are a lot less racist than their parents. I don’t think support for gay marriage happened because people became enlightened about gay rights or were educated about alternative interpretations of the Bible. The best way to change someone’s opinion on gay rights wasn’t to lecture them about it, but to have them get to know gay people. Now that the discussion was about their friends, they’re were willing to support it, even though the intellectual arguments never changed. Transphobia won’t disappear because somebody pokes holes in Jordan Peterson’s arguments.

    The activists are concerned about a 4th outcome, that Peterson’s ideas will grow in popularity regardless of whether or not they are true. If you repeat an idea often enough, the public can come to accept it (or internalize it even if they intellectually reject it). That used to be called “swift-boating” but Trump has made the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth appear quaint by comparison. Validity is only part of the reason somebody may adopt an idea. It also depends on if it benefits them, affirms their prejudices, or is shared by their “tribe.” Global warming and evolution are both obviously true but are denied by the same people who support Peterson.

    1. “If you repeat an idea often enough, the public can come to accept it (or internalize it even if they intellectually reject it”- that’s what feminists do, isn’t it? Only I didn’t know it was called ‘swift-boating’.

      btw, forcing people to accord African-Americans their civil rights wasn’t abrogating free speech, it was enforcing laws about equality. If anything, it involved protecting the free speech of African-Americans.

    2. “Global warming and evolution are both obviously true but are denied by the same people who support Peterson.”

      Come again? Peterson’s whole philosophy is based on the reality of evolution…

      As for attitudes to gay marriage, I disagree. I think what brought about change was a few decades of open debates in public media, with lots of arguments in favour of gay rights, then gay marriage, plus the result of the sexual revolution which brought about more open discussion about non-standard sexual behavior, combined with exposure to likeable, “normal” looking and acting gays, like all the celebrities coming out as gay or being outed as gay (Rock Hudson, Ellen, Meredith Baxter, etc.), and TV shows portraying them in a sympathetic light, etc., rather than the strident, in-your-face Gay Pride or raging queens type. Then as some of their likeable relatives and coworkers came out, people realized gays were not what they had been made out to be.

      So – lots of exposure and discussion were necessary to get from criminalization of gay sex to gay marriage in a few decades.

      The race situation is more complex, but I would argue the same factors were in play.

      But that is exactly why the Left activists are scared of open discussions, and so scared to death of Peterson- they work, and they could work the other way, too.

  6. I taught a small discussion course at my college (Barnard) on nuclear weapons and ethics. Students started off their discussions by identifying themselves in specific categories, then using these categories to assert their position, as in “well I’m ___ and therefore I think . . .) They implicitly and sometimes explicitly took the position that their identities gave them greater authority in the discussion than others not so endowed. Then we read an essay by a soldier headed to what he thought was the upcoming the invasion of Japan in 1945, called “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb.” I pointed out that his identity and his experience should, according to their approach, be privileged over their lack of combat experience, and because his life was on the line and theirs were not, perhaps they had no right to argue against his point of view about the bomb. They digested that thought for awhile. Thereafter we dropped the idea that affirming an identity was the equivalent of making an argument (or privileging an argument). At that point we began to have discussions that were worth their time and mine.

  7. I think where I get hung up on the idea of a progressive liberal society is that when it’s talked about it seems to imply that oppression and marginalization are bad things something to be pathologized and avoided at all costs. Is that an incorrect impression?

    I know in my life the marginalization I’ve experienced profoundly difficult sent me to a place of wanting to take my own life and it’s those experiences that helped me to survive even more intense experiences later in life. So I don’t think marginalization or oppression are something to be eliminated they are something that helps us grow.

    1. That’s a good question. I don’t think the goal could or should be to eliminate all oppression (that is likely impossible). But I think the moment efforts to end oppression start to interfere with the foundations of liberalism is likely when it no longer makes sense, what I think Mill describes as social rights (as discussed above).
      I’m also in strong agreement that there is a lot of value to be had from experiencing hardships (I’ve gone through a number and am better for it). But obviously I know you are not claiming that life was better for gay people in the 50s because they got to experience more marginalization, which helped them grow. The struggle is, I think, to identify the difference between acceptable oppression or unacceptable oppression (I’m guessing you’d agree with that). But I think liberalism based on the individual manages to balance that pretty well.
      Finally, I think progressive liberalism is not about avoiding all oppression, but at least remaining open to new conversations about marginalization, to perpetually improve, by engaging in arguments about injustice. My worry with classical liberalism is that it tends to bias us toward not having empathy, toward the attitude of “I’ve got my problems, they’ve got there’s, tough”. I tend to morally favour liberalism based on hope that things can be improved, reformed.

    2. I would qualify the types of “marginalization” and “oppression” that have good outcomes are ones that are reactions to the person doing harmful things to others. If you are marginalized because you are a jerk, or get bad grades because you are partying, or just THINK you are oppressed when in reality you just have no marketable skills, then the solution is introspection and self-change.

  8. Live your life according to your own values, but don’t assume others will respect those values, or accord you the same space that you’d give them. Freedom and liberty must be defended or else they will be denied right when you need them the most.

    People who are against individual rights and liberties aren’t content to go off and live in a compound like some cult. The whole world needs to be their cult. Any source of power or influence in society, they will seek to pervert. And if you aren’t careful, you might find the cult has expanded until it’s in your front yard and your otherwise neutral neighbors have been bullied into joining their mob.

  9. “Not fit in where?”
    Into the overarching meaning structures of society, for example. That is, not necessarily to feel special, but just to not feel alienated and isolated. That’s where a progressive liberal society comes in, allowing for changes in cultural value patterns to normalize certain forms of life that are otherwise marginalized.
    You are right to say some “Identitarians are exceptionalists; they see their experiences as special, and more legitimate than other people’s. Identity-based sub-theories give rationales for this exceptionalism”. But that’s not the view I’m defending. Rather, I’m trying to defend a liberal society based on the individual, and arguing that this is a better path for left-activists who are currently preoccupied with, in some cases, identitarian ideology (did you read the whole article?).

    I’m also not sure where you get the idea that I define oppression as “a set of very bad things that have happened to you”. I’ve actually never experienced any oppression in my life. I’m merely using my moral intuition to understand why living in certain social positions/identity categories is possibly more difficult than others. Perhaps you take issue with calling these difficulties oppression. I could imagine arguments for saying the word oppression overstates matters. But really all I mean is disadvantage connected to the humiliation that follows from living a marginal life. A liberal society ought to be one that can correct those disadvantages, when reasonable in the framework of liberalism. In no way is it my view that some identities should have moral priority over others, if that is what you think my view is you’ve misread me.

  10. “Those who deny the possibility of such experiences of oppression are likely missing, or possibly willfully ignoring, a basic moral intuition – it is obviously humiliating to not fit in.”

    Not fit in where? This is where the various identity-based sub-theories trip up. Sure, you don’t fit into some groups. Some of the groups you don’t fit into are gatekeepers for things you want, like jobs in your chosen field. Some groups you do fit into are totally useless for anything other than friendship and support. I have the same problem; most people do. Identitarians are exceptionalists; they see their experiences as special, and more legitimate than other people’s. Identity-based sub-theories give rationales for this exceptionalism.

    Of course I speak from the perspective of someone who has never faced oppression. Let me correct that: I speak from the perspective of someone who has never faced what you define as oppression. For you, oppression is a set of very bad things that have happened to you, and a lot of these things never happened to me. But there’s a set of very bad things that have happened to me as well, and a whole bunch of them have never happened to you. You are claiming that your set of very bad things is more legitimate than mine, but (a) on what grounds, and (b) why should anyone care? Including you? It’s not a competition.

    Let’s take an example of, say, the group “working class retirees who live in double-wide trailers in a retirement community.” Do you want to join my group? Bear in mind that my group systematically excludes people less than 55, so it is oppressing young people who want to live with elderly working class retirees in double-wides. But do you have any interest in being a member of my group? I don’t see why you would, as we have nothing in common and conversation would quickly flag. This boils down to you being oppressed by not wanting to join a group who probably wouldn’t mind you joining as long as you were elderly and working class and didn’t mind living in a double-wide.

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