John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), the social and political theorist, presented the following scenario in his essay, On Liberty:
If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. (II.1)
If everyone in the whole world, minus one, shared the same opinion about something, we can only imagine how reviled the opinion of the single outlier would be. Surely, such deviance would be explained as wretchedness, and doubtlessly the possessor of such an aberrant belief would be the object of scorn and ridicule. How much easier it would be, ardent defendants of the truth would argue, if that peculiar voice could simply be silenced? In the name of harmony, why not simply eliminate the lone trigger of discord? Why should one antagonist be allowed to ruin the otherwise unanimous confidence shared by everyone else?
Perish the thought, argued Mill: exactly the opposite should occur. The lone dissident must have the protection of the state on his or her side. The one voice in a million that is audacious enough to declare that all other nine hundred, ninety-nine thousand minds are mistaken – that lone voice must be protected from the mob that would eagerly silence it.
Mill founded his position first on a principal of universal, individual liberty. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” (I.9) If this individual liberty is only enjoyed by those who share in the public opinion of the majority, then there is in fact no individual liberty at all. Therefore, the freedoms of the entire population must be equally shared by the individual who critiques the rest of the population. A selectively bestowed liberty is no liberty. Or, in the words of revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919):
Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of “justice” but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when “freedom” becomes a special privilege. (The Russian Revolution, Chapter 6)
Mill recognized another moral peril in silencing the lone dissident: squelching and silencing a person’s freedom of expression not only robs the individual of their right to speak, but it robs everyone else of the right, privilege, and opportunity to another point of view:
But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. (II.1)
Therefore, the heretical, unorthodox, nonconformist plays a vital role in society. The agitator’s ideas, recusant as they are, must be allowed and protected, for they are the only ideas capable of truly prodding the complacent assumptions of the majority – who would otherwise be happy to simply wallow in the self-pleasing massages of their own unchallenged beliefs (or, worse, crucify anyone who disagreed with the established doctrines of their group-think).
To put it another way: If I demand that your view should not be expressed, then I have not only concluded that my view is infallible, but I have also concluded that other people should not even be allowed to think about the idea for themselves. (“All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility,” II.3) I have not offended the speaker’s right to speak; I have offended the audience’s right to hear. I have made myself the arbitrator of truth; appointed myself as the judge over knowledge. I have betrayed my feebleminded, self-sanctioning assumption that the truth is such a fragile thing that it only survives because I defend it.
Thus the paradox of living in a free, liberal society: it is your personal benefit (as it is for the good of the whole) that even the most misogynist, racist, hateful, fundamentalist, sectarian, and incendiary voice has the equal right to speak as you do. And their right to speak is one in the same as your freedom to retort their shameful, corruptive slogans. If you choose to take their freedom away, in equal parts you take away your right to defend what you believe.
Therefore, argues Mill, the censors and regulators of ideas are not, as they claim, the protectors of the common good. Those who would appoint themselves as virtuous guardians over the minds of the people – those who would relieve the confident majority from all ‘offensive’ exposure to divergent opinions – such censors are themselves, in fact, public enemy number one.
Thomas Paine (1737-1809) highlighted the personal dimension of this conviction:
I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. (Age of Reason, Introduction)
We tend to equate agreement with unity. We often bemoan a lack of common ideals when a government is elected by a slight margin rather than by a landslide, or when a committee motion passes with a single swing vote across a sharply divided issue. Oh, we think, if only we were only more ideologically cohesive, more strongly allied together, more resonant with common goals. Imagine what we might accomplish if we were all of one mind? Yes, imagine indeed. And shudder.
When you hear some ridiculous prattling echoing across the floor of an ideological divide, remember the linchpin upon which your freedom is founded: it is not important that we all agree, it is only important that we are able to disagree.