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John Stuart Mill and the politically correct

The difficult liberty

David Gallagher
MA in Literature, Oxford University Á - N.1

In his essay On Liberty, 1859, the English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill showed analytical lucidity with mechanisms that given the social efforts for establishing a unique opinion. This attitude that relegates thought and sees an enemy in freedom, is currently reproduced in the so-called progressive spheres. When the anathemas of the new puritanism resound, Mill’s reflexions are particularly pressing.


«Enemy of juridical scolding, Stuart Mill is sorry that “one of the most universal of all human inclinations” is to “extend the limits of moral policy”»


For those that believe in an open society, there’s nothing more important than the critique and freedom of expression that it supposes. This is the central point of John Stuart Mill in his essay On liberty (1859), the most passionate defence of freedom of speech in the English language from the touching Areopagítica of John Milton, in 1644.


For Mill freedom of expression has to be defended not only from governments, but also from common citizens that want us to be like them, reduced to a servile conformism. Mill says “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 (…) 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”.1


Almost a century later Orwell would write that “public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals is less tolerant than any system of law. Because of this, Orwell believes that there is a totalitarian tendency in “anarchist or pacifist views of society”. When humans are governed by “thou shalt not”, he says, “the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly governed by “love” or “reason”, he is under continuous pressure to make hum behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else”.2


Mill’s insistence on freedom of expression is not because he considers it a human right. He clarifies that it is not for “barbaric” peoples because these, as children, have to be guided in their opinions. But it is necessary from “the moment that the human species was capable of improving its situation by means of a free and balanced discussion” (p 85-86).


To improve: this is the key for Mill, for whom freedom of speech is mostly an epistemological necessity. If we can’t discuss freely, if opinions —although they might be held by the highest political, religious or scientific authorities, although they might come from Newton himself (p 103)— they are not exposed to critique, we run the risk of enthroning errors, depriving ourselves from valuable discoveries, of losing the possibility of advancing and improving. For Mill there is no “truth” immune to revision: whoever believes to count with one has fallen into the failure of thinking himself unfailing. And if there is one that in any age manages to hold up to any critique, it’s better, because it would be stronger. On the contrary those that remain armoured end up being dead words (p 100-103). Also, the fact that most people believe something doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s enough to see the absurd things people believed in past centuries (p 107-108).


«The fact that most people believe something doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s enough to see the absurd things people believed in past centuries»


The pleasure of censure

Mill’s insistence on freedom also has to do with his idea of the development of the individual. Poor man who, obliged to conform, doesn’t develop his own abilities freely, doesn’t experiment, both in knowledge and lifestyle. Poor society of people like this. What can a citizen learn from the other if we are all the same? How does a society enrich itself if we all think the same? If no one is allowed to develop his “character”? (p 157).


Mill was afraid that his contemporaries did not value freedom. The cohesion with the government was less resisted than before because, mistakenly they believed that a democratic government that represented the “majority”, had by definition the right to exercise it: “it was not necessary to protect the nation from its own will” (p 74). On the other hand, there was a strong and anti-elitist impulse in society: “the general tendency (…) was aimed at converting mediocrity into the dominant power” (p 164). That’s what an ever-more powerful public opinion wanted. “Today more individuals are lost in masses”. (p 164).


However, freedom for Mill did have limits. He suggests that it has to be restricted when it’s very damaging, and he gives examples. “The opinion that grain handlers satisfy the hunger of the poor, or that private property is theft, should not be perturbed when it simply circulates in the press, but it can deserve a just punishment if it is manifested orally before a furious congregated multitude before the house of a grain trafficker, or if the same congregation raises it in a banner (…) The freedom of the individual is in that way limited: it cannot be a nuisance for the rest” (p 149-150).


It must be said that Mill’s reflexions are much less passionate and frequent trails than his defences of freedom. However, he does think that some of them are necessary, although he might not seem sure where the limit is. The example of the grain handlers not, to say the least, very convincing. Why talk of a “nuisance for the rest”?


Mill has been quoted as the precursor of those that criticise the excess of the “politically correct”.1 But that of the nuisance seems on the contrary to vindicate them. His affirmation seems in effect, to vindicate those that in the delicate atmosphere in which they have been installed in many American and English universities, they demand that words that can “stimulate anguish” to or simply “offend” some student aren’t used.

But there are many other sections that are more forceful and numerous, in which Mill criticises the censure grounded on the risk of “offense”. Many consider an offense any behaviour that they dislike”, objects Mill, “and they resist as if it had been a plot against their feelings” (p 192-193). Also, Mill is very critical of the malicious pleasure that a citizen can have when censuring another, very critical in particular of the malicious sensation of power and moral superiority of doing it. Enemy of juridical scolding, he is sorry that “one of the most universal of all human inclinations” is to “extend the limits of what is moral policy” (p 194).


Mundo epistemológicamente muerto /

There is no doubt that Mill would reject the multiple manifestations of “moral policy” that we see in the world today, and the rigid censures that they stimulate. In fact, the gravest is that which dictatorships impose. We know this in Chile because we have gone through it. Having said this, it is curious that in “progressive” parts of the world so much “moral policy” has been installed. A “citizen” policy that, in especially Anglo-Saxon universities, means to protect students from discordant opinions. To protect them even of words —the so called “scolding”— that can offend or anguish. Instead of considering university as a place without limits in which one can think and research, this moral policy promotes the creation of “safe spaces” in which students are not challenged by discordant ideas or opinions, where they can feel comfortable because no one will contradict them, no one will even subject them to what is now known as “micro-aggressions”, ideas or phrases or attitudes that can aggravate them even if it were never the intension of the supposed “aggressor”.


It is the epistemologically dead world that Mill is most afraid of, one in which everyone treads on egg shells because they don’t know what act or word can cause offense. A world in which a handful of leaders, those that impose the servile conformism that these “safe spaces” require, acquire ever more power. Leaders that are even ready to recur to violence when someone with unacceptable opinions arrives at the university. It is what in the United Kingdom was baptised as no-platforming —negating tribune, or to “platform” someone— if necessary by force, a sad practise that has already come to Chile.


What’s behind this new intolerance? This propension of shutting oneself into resonance cameras in which the whole world thinks the same and no external thought is allowed? This new puritanism, if not totalitarianism, because it’s especially common in English-speaking universities?


«Being a victim, the student of Yale or Oxford partially liberates the tremendous guilt with which he was brought us. Guilt is partially handed down to the victimised. Partially because it is never enough»


Some attribute it to the fact that young people today are too protected, making them vulnerable -as snowflakes-, and so there are words that really can produce anguish. Retirement to safe spaces would be a psychological necessity. Because of this, teachers would have to avoid risky words in their classes, or warn their students that there may be scenes of a violent or sexual nature, in some text to be read; one of the violent and machist Shakespeare, for example. Even if there were those that wanted to eliminate the reading of these text, perhaps because great literature is —and I quote Vargas Llosa— “neither moral not immoral, but genuine, subversive, uncontrollable”. A provocation for those that want to subject us and enclose us, preferring a “tepid and conventional, better said, dead” literature.1


After this comes the explication of the culture of the victim that has been so far extended in the world, particularly on the left. Culture that has a special side in the Anglo-Saxon world, I think. Because there the protestant ethic has always provoked the feeling of guilt. Diffuse guilt, of anything. Even of being alive. How to combat it for the least needy generation in history? The generation that was never want of anything, that nonetheless feels more guilt than ever? To be converted into a victim, of course. Victim of the power of professors, of family, of any discrimination: of race, ethnicity, gender, or finally for being too tall or too thin. Being a victim, the student of Yale or Oxford partially liberates the tremendous guilt with which he was brought us. Guilt is partially handed down to the victimised.


The mental closure induced by political correctness has other explanations. For example, the power given to some to organize it, and enjoy it while installed. What’s more powerful than creating a mass immune to any debate, and implacable with all dissident? It is a power with an additional attractive: anyone can exercise it, even if for a little while. Anyone can constitute themselves as a accuser or a judge, whoever can have the luxury of feeling morally superior. Because as Mill discovered, there is a “universal inclination” to want to become a “moral police”.


Political correction and the closed mindedness it produces is also a face of the intent of “progressive” groups of reinstalling in society similar struggles as the one between classes. The most prominent are those of race, ethnicity and gender; also the one of class if it can be revived. The result is the opposite of what is proclaimed. Because instead of generating equality, differences are highlighted. If there are long lists of things that you can’t say to people of another gender, race or ethnicity without offending, without falling into a micro or macro aggression, what equality are we talking about? The consequence is a world in which people don’t even dare to mix between races, ethnicities, genders or classes.


As Mill sustained, there is no idea without the right to express itself in the infinite process of trial and error. No idea that shouldn’t be tried. But equally and for the same reason, there is no idea that should not be submitted to the most rigorous scrutiny. This is what the promoters of political correctness don’t want to understand. In the name of “progress”, or “progressiveness”, they promote censure, closed mindedness. Or when they open our minds they move the frontiers of knowledge, teaching us for example that there are traces of patriarchy in language, or that genders are not necessarily binary, but a spectrum, they want to immediately close the frontiers again, as if open mindedness that they themselves have had, give them vertigo. The limits of knowledge that they impose on us from there are particularly dangerous in universities, places in which to limit it should be unthinkable. Instead of this the list of the unthinkable grows and they drown us in a wave of accusatory puritanism, that which Mill was so scared of. They will submit us into a world where they don’t allow us individuality, the “character” that Mill so treasured.


  1. Mill, John Stuart, 2015 [1859]. Sobre la libertad, Tecnos, Madrid, p. 77. En adelante, este libro será citado solo mencionando la o las páginas entre paréntesis.
  2. Orwell, G., 1957. «Politics vs. Literature», en Inside the Whale and Other Essays, Peguin, Londres, p.132
  3. Ver Bloom, LH., 2017. «John Stuart Mill and Political Correctness». University of Louisville Law Review, vol.56, No 1, 2017; SMU Dedman School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No 364.
  4. Vargas Llosa, M., 2018. «Nuevas inquisiciones», El País, 18 de marzo, p.12.


David Gallagher