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.