Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, 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 compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
It is uncontroversial to state that John Stuart Mill was a liberal. There will be more resistance to using the term to describe Milo Yiannopoulos, a professional provocateur who recently stepped down from his editor’s job at Breitbart following a furore over a year-old podcast. I will argue that modern liberals should defend Milo, and recognize that Milo defends the key liberal principle of free speech, even when he uses it to express thoughts and feelings they dislike. Those who dislike free speech may want to stop reading now – though I hardly need to tell them that. Being prepared to entertain unpopular ideas is another key aspect of liberalism, which is seemingly being lost because so many other aspects of liberalism have become “the prevailing opinion and feeling”.
This is an argument about Milo, not Mill; like others I will refer to Yiannopoulos by his given name because it seems modern multiculturalism lacks the linguistic diversity to cope with Greek surnames. However, I begin with Mill to establish a precedent for what liberalism is. Mill spent much of the 19th Century arguing for the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, and for the merits of worker cooperatives. He famously stated that “stupid persons are generally Conservative”. If Mill’s words do not define liberalism I doubt anyone else can claim to define it.
We can argue that words change their meaning over time, and that liberalism can evolve. However, ideas do not evolve by growing inconsistent. Politicians and journalists will often express ill-considered and flawed opinions but they may not take ownership of other people’s ideas, even if they routinely seek to hijack them for temporary gain. Liberalism is ultimately a philosophy, a body of ideas. That means it cannot succeed by being rendered incoherent through the adoption of inconsistent principles.
The most essential principle of liberalism is freedom of thought and speech. Whilst Milo is an ardent and passionate advocate of free speech, many so-called liberals would like to impede his freedom to speak. That makes Milo an effective advocate of liberalism, whilst his enemies are working against liberalism, even if they like to refer to themselves as ‘liberals’.
Why is free speech so crucial to liberalism? Some might argue that a person is liberal if they endorse most liberal tenets, even if they reject a few. However, I do not believe a philosophy is like a menu, where adherence is demonstrated by counting the number of dishes that suit your intellectual appetite. Some principles are more important than others. Some provide the foundations, others follow as a consequence. As Mill explains, free speech is necessary not just for the freedom of the speaker, but for the freedom of all listeners too:
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.
Free speech is vital for the coherence of liberalism, as understood to be a body of ideas that pursues not just the maximum freedom for all human beings, but also equality between human beings. Liberals are obliged to allow the opponents of liberalism to speak their mind. That is because free speech is the cornerstone of lasting equality within any society. How might we decide if somebody is being treated fairly if we cannot hear their point of view? Mill makes the argument thus:
…it suffices that, in the absence of its natural defenders, the interest of the excluded is always in danger of being overlooked: and, when looked at, is seen with very different eyes from those of the persons whom it directly concerns.
Without free speech we must be doomed to inequality of some sort or other, because we must have divided the population between those who may speak, and those who may not. Speech is powerful; it allows us to state our case, and to influence others. Arguing that we must deny influence because some ideas are wrong is to put the cart before the horse. I cannot know an idea is wrong until I am conscious of that idea. If you take away the freedom of the speaker you also take away my freedom to listen. And to determine an idea is wrong involves a willingness to entertain that idea. Those who deny free speech are insisting that they have listened enough, and have judged enough, so they must deny everybody else the opportunity to judge. By claiming the authority to judge on behalf of society the would-be judges grant themselves a power they simultaneously would deny to others. That is inequality, and is fundamentally contrary to liberalism.
It is helpful to recognize Mill expressed his liberal views during a time when they were a lot less fashionable. In many respects Mill was a feminist. He was also a meritocrat, and an opponent of inherited wealth. Mill certainly stood opposed to many ‘prevailing opinions and feelings’ of his time. In that respect he is not so different to Milo. Only a limp provocateur who target his ire at unpopular opinions.
What was unpopular during Mill’s time has become popular now. Women could not vote when Mill lived, whilst a bid to repeal the women’s vote would have no hope of success now. That means the evolution of liberalism cannot involve simply repeating Mill’s conclusions. Liberals must allow repeated argument for and against every conclusion. However, in recent years it has become normal for progressive politicians to make the argument for liberal conclusions by stating the date, as if they only need to appeal to historical necessity. A good example was the answer given by Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, when asked why it was important that his cabinet have as many women as men. His answer: “because it’s 2015!”
True liberals should consider this an appalling argument, a blatant appeal to the current state of fashion rather than to an enduring principle. Let us imagine we sat with Mill as he wrote:
What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing — the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others.
Suppose a conservative had read those words, then turned to Mill and triumphantly uttered “it’s 1869!” Would we accept that the conservative had a valid counter-argument? I think not. We would say women were the same in 1869 as in 2015, so deserved equality then, as now, as always. But if your argument involves chanting today’s date then you must be arguing that you are right because prevailing opinion and feeling is right. This can hardly be called a coherent philosophy, or a principled position. Prevailing opinion and feeling will change from time to time, often for irrational reasons. It is a poor shadow of a liberal thinker who relies on the argument that we should all hold popular beliefs when they are popular, whilst only turning to reason when stating opinions that are currently unpopular.
Liberalism persists because liberals like Mill promulgated eternal principles, but the greatest threat to those principles now comes from supporters of a modern, debased variant of liberalism. They want many of the same conclusions that were reached by great thinkers like Mill, but not at the inconvenience of reaching those conclusions by building upon sound fundamental principles. That is why they prefer to conclude they are right because they are popular, and may also conclude that alternative points of view need not be entertained. They are convinced they are right, and are surrounded by people who agree with them, so why should they bother thinking about other points of view? Mill knew all about people who adhere to this way of life:
Stupidity is much the same all the world over. A stupid person’s notions and feelings may confidently be inferred from those which prevail in the circle by which the person is surrounded. Not so with those whose opinions and feelings are an emanation from their own nature and faculties.
Whilst Mill argued that stupid people tended to be conservative, I believe that progress means his criterion for stupidity is now satisfied by many liberals. Some liberals unashamedly revel in the popularity of their opinions, and they offer that popularity as justification for them. Popularity has become an alternative for exercising their faculties in order to construct justifications for their beliefs. In other words, some modern-day liberals are behaving like 19th Century conservatives.
Perhaps part of the problem is that liberalism is associated with the modern left because it was associated with the historical left, even though much has changed between then and now. Television presenter and comedian Bill Maher is a modern liberal, but a classic liberal too. He invited Milo to speak on his television show; you can watch the interview here. Maher is consistent in ways that make other liberals uncomfortable, and that includes unwavering support for free speech. Milo and Maher talked about the subject, and this is their exchange.
Maher: You’re so – let’s say ‘helped’ – by the fact that liberals just always take the bait.
Milo: Of course!
Maher: Now you’re a conservative, I’m a liberal…
Milo: Well, I don’t know, I don’t know if I’m conservative. I’m libertarian, I’m a free speech…
Maher: (talks over) You write for Breitbart and you’re a Trump supporter. You’re a conservative.
Milo: Well it’s interesting that the radical gay editorials saying interesting things, provocative things about gays are now being published by Breitbart. And I don’t think really you can call Trump a traditional conservative; he’s not that Republican.
Maher: No, you’re correct about that. He’s very dangerous…
Milo: (talks over) All I care about is free speech and free expression. I want people to be able to be, do, and say anything. These days you’re right, that’s a conservative position.
Maher: I care about the environment and living also. But you’re right, free speech… (interrupted by applause) But I mean, you’re right…
Milo: That’s a conservative position now.
Maher: … we’ve both been disbarred at Berkeley. You know, I gave the commencement address…
Milo: (talks over) much more dramatically I’d just like to say. They just disinvited you. I had riots, people got beaten up…
Maher: Right, okay, you win there. You beat me out there.
Milo: It’s not a competition.
Maher: No, it’s not a competition. But when you make liberals crazy for that part of liberalism that has gone off the deep end.
Milo: Most of it. You’re the only good one. You’re literally the only good one. Your side has gone insane. The Democrats are the party of Lena Dunham. These people are mental, hideous people. The more that America sees of Lena Dunham the fewer votes the Democrat Party is ever going to get.
Maher: Let’s not pick on fellow HBO stars.
What could have been a very sharp discussion about liberalism and free speech often failed to ignite at the crucial moment, either because Maher and Milo talked over each other, or because the audience intervened with applause for lines which echoed their simpler prejudices, interrupting the flow when it seemed more interesting insights were about to emerge from the dialogue. However, we can see that an avowed and passionate liberal is in uncontroversial agreement with Milo about the importance of free speech. Far from being a simplistic enemy to liberalism, Milo is reluctant to accept the contrast between his ‘conservatism’ with Maher’s liberalism. They both agree that some liberals ‘have gone off the deep end’, meaning those liberals have rejected free speech because they believe they should not tolerate their opponents having a voice. Perhaps the key point, and the key area of agreement, followed when Maher brought up his track record of hurting people by disagreeing with their religious beliefs.
Maher: … when you recognize that you’re a Catholic, I hope you say to yourself: ‘gee, I’m also capable of bullshit stupid thinking.’
Milo: Well everyone’s capable of bullshit stupid thinking…
Maher: Okay, right!
Milo: … and that’s okay. It’s a characteristic of the modern left, I think, requiring this absolute consistency. But forgetting that people are messy and complicated.
Contrast Maher’s engagement with “messy” free speech to the behaviour of Jeremy Scahill, who refused to appear on the same show as Milo because “there is no value in debating him.” Scahill posted his argument to Twitter, an ironic choice given that Milo has been banned from Twitter so could not respond directly.
Why I will not appear this week on Real Time with Bill Maher. pic.twitter.com/SOoE3udrDr
— jeremy scahill (@jeremyscahill) February 15, 2017
I find Scahill’s argument to be despicable. Many of the rationalizations proffered – Milo will do this, Milo will do that – were subsequently shown to be flawed because Milo did none of those things on the actual show. How can we have free speech in our society if some people are selectively and preemptively barred from speaking because they might say the wrong thing? It is hard to imagine a censor’s rule which could be more open to abuse.
Arguing that Milo will ‘exploit’ the opportunity to ‘legitimize’ his agenda is nothing other than saying Milo will express his point of view and attempt to justify his opinions. Liberals like Mill welcome argument. But Scahill thinks he knows better than Mill, and Milo, and me, and you. Scahill knows that none of us need to hear Milo’s argument, because Scahill has heard enough already. Because Scahill feels that he is so very fit to listen and judge an argument, he is entitled to conclude that none of us can be trusted to listen to the same argument.
Scahill then turns to hyperbole – Milo should not be allowed to speak this time because he has publicly attacked people by name in the past, and such attacks could lead to death! Mill’s liberalism clearly allows limits to be placed on speech if people will otherwise come to harm. The problem, as ever, is in demonstrating cause and effect. Nobody has ever said that Milo’s words made them kill somebody. And what if somebody killed Milo and then cited Scahill’s rant as justification? Scahill cannot rule out the possibility; he does not know what is in the minds of countless other people. Would we then hold Scahill responsible for the murder, and so bar him from working as a journalist ever again, just in case he got other people killed? Should we bar him right now, just in case? Of course not. We would rightly avoid making such an extreme leap from one person’s words to the actions of another.
The imagined leap from words to violence has become the bane of modern liberalism, because that leap only seems to occur when right-leaning opponents of liberalism are speaking, and never when anyone else talks. But the chief reason why Milo’s notoriety has risen to the point where he is worthy of inclusion on Maher’s television show is that many people who tried to listen to Milo speak at Berkeley were physically attacked by a violent mob. Whose words incited those rioters? Should every blow that was dealt that night be blamed on every person who ever denounced Milo’s views? It is plain that liberalism falls into incoherence when it arbitrarily picks and chooses which words can be freely spoken, and which must be restricted because of the supposed potential to ’cause’ violence.
America is plagued by simple binary thinking that is deliberately and viciously exploited by those who want to suppress and channel debate. Increasingly liberals have made the mistake of thinking liberalism is the alternative to conservatism. There are many alternatives to conservatism, and to liberalism, although there are only two parties with a chance of winning elections in the USA. There are alternatives to conservatism both within and outside the Republican Party. There are alternatives to liberalism both within and outside the Democratic Party. Liberals should defend the free speech of all, no matter which party they are affiliated with. They should not pick and choose, irrespective of whether liberals form political alliances with some people who are not liberals, and irrespective of the alliances formed by their opponents.
According to some, a widespread and continuing attack on free speech is now justified as a defence against fascism. That is nonsense. Fascism is a bogeyman routinely deployed by alarmists seeking attention. George Orwell decried exaggerated threats of fascism as early as 1944 and there have been no successful fascist movements since, unless you strain the definition to include nationalist movements which also have leftist or religious roots. There are many systems of belief that liberals disagree with, and they should not all be conflated with a violent militaristic dogma that receives little real support in practice.
Just as liberals accuse fascists of seeking to co-opt more palatable philosophies, they should be sensitive to the accusation that liberalism can be co-opted by those who do not support liberal principles, but only wish to use them to manipulate liberals. It is informative to consider recent comments about Milo made by another British provocateur, Owen Jones. Jones is more usually described as an ‘activist’ because lefties prefer that label when they use words and criticism and mockery to encourage protest and provoke change whilst venting spleen at people they do not like. The views of Milo and Jones are diametrically opposed but in other respects the men are strikingly similar: white gay British men, both the same age, both intelligent, both paid to write opinions about politics and current affairs, both cultivating a personal following not least via social media, both passionate, both desperate to be in front of cameras at every opportunity. This is what Jones thinks of free speech:
Milo Yiannopoulos’s enablers deserve contempt – and must be confronted
What does this mean? Should people argue with Milo’s ‘enablers’? That would seem to imply the freedom to talk on both sides, unless Jones imagines a scenario where the enablers sit with their mouths taped whilst he lectures them into submission. Or does it imply violence? The problem with Jones’ article is he never clarifies what happens during the confrontations he demands, though he implies that an important component is that ‘enablers’ should be bullied into removing access to communication from those who say things that Jones does not agree with.
Both [Milo’s] associates and enablers have no excuses. They should be held responsible and accountable. Whether Yiannopoulos disappears or not – I suspect not – there will be others who make bigotry sexy in exchange for commercial success. But there is nothing sexy about racism and fascism. It is a menace to be defeated – and that means confronting not just its sympathisers, but its enablers too.
As usual with Owen Jones, he prefers to repeat the tropes beloved by his fans rather than deal with all the messy real-world examples that do not fit his argument; that is one more addition to the list of similarities between Jones and Milo. The chief reason why Milo is given a platform on television shows is that he says interesting things that some people agree with, others disagree with. There is no need to assume a cynical profit motive when inviting people like that to engage in debate. After all, neither Jones nor Milo are strangers to the BBC. Britain’s largest media organization supposedly has no interest in profit, but it has ‘enabled’ Milo on many occasions, just like it has ‘enabled’ Jones. It is not hard to find examples of Milo on the BBC: this is a clip of Milo on a BBC documentary arguing against limits on free speech on social media, whilst here is Milo’s profile for a BBC series entitled Free Speech. So Milo’s role in supporting free speech is consistent, and has nothing to do with making bigotry ‘sexy’ for BBC viewers or anyone else.
Contrary to Jones’ avowed goal, liberalism will never defeat any other ideology. On the contrary, it must always tolerate its opponents. Liberals only win if their arguments are truly superior. That requires liberals to engage in argument, instead of just supposing their inevitable victory whilst prohibiting any actual argument. If liberal arguments are truly superior, liberals have no reason to shun the techniques of argument.
Being the intellectual maggot that Jones is, it is no surprise he wants to hold people “responsible and accountable” for exercising free speech without specifying what that will mean in practice. Should we begin by putting certain BBC producers in the stocks, and throwing rotten vegetables at them? I doubt Jones would approve of such vague yet ominous language if it was used to assert that similarly ill-defined groups should be held responsible and accountable for social evils like sexual abuse or paedophilia. This brings us to the reason for Jones’ rejoicing:
Yet now that there is video evidence that he is an apologist for relationships between older men and younger boys, some of his associates (but not all) and his enablers are electing to distance themselves.
‘Now’ is a strange word to use for the replay of a year-old interview where Milo says the age of consent is right but that there may be positive aspects to a sexual relationship between some post-pubescent boys and older men. Without wanting to debate whether this makes Milo an ‘apologist’ for paedophilia – and surely this analysis is long enough already, without exploring that distraction – we can observe that Milo expressed a point of view during a reasonably sophisticated conversation about sexual relationships involving people on the verge of adulthood (as opposed to children). The expression of this view can only be said to cause harm if we take an extraordinarily nebulous view of how the words might be seen as encouragement to a prospective child abuser.
We do not ban the works of ancient Greeks that discuss the merits of homosexual relationships between men and physically mature boys. We do not ban Islam because its prophet married a pre-pubescent girl. We do not ban Romeo and Juliet because both of its central characters are below the modern age of consent, and we do not ban Lolita because it revolves around the sexual desires of an old man for a twelve-year old girl. In short, we tolerate them all because we cannot blame them for the harm done by child abusers. So it is both a shame, and an inconsistency, that opponents of Milo are leaping for joy at the inconsistency of Milo’s supposed ‘enablers’. If conservatives reject Milo because he expressed his opinion, this illustrates why Milo said on Maher’s show that he does not know if he is conservative, during an interview that took place a week before this latest furore.
To be fair to Jones, he does not consider himself a liberal. He joked that he considers the label an insult:
So here's the Fox News attack on me: http://t.co/sqqfURKB I'll take "braying jackal", but I'm livid about "liberal" writer. Maybe I'll sue
— Owen Jones (@OwenJones84) August 25, 2012
This aside helps to reiterate my point about the alternatives to liberalism. Much of the anti-Milo ranting supposes a false dichotomy: liberal versus conservative, with us or against us. The truth is that many on the left are not liberals, and many on the right are not conservatives, even if they choose to describe themselves that way. Liberals should feel philosophically obliged to defend Milo’s right to free expression, irrespective of the arguments made by people who vote the same way as them. And they should be prepared to support the free speech of anybody, including those who vote differently to them. Liberalism is not a political party. If liberals act in a politically tribal fashion when protecting or interfering with free speech they are rejecting the principles that are the foundation of liberalism.
That Milo is a reliable and passionate advocate of free speech is further reason for liberals to support him. Liberals should support free speech in practice, not just as a theoretical goal written in a forgotten textbook. It is better for liberals to support a non-liberal who supports the exercise of liberal principles than to support a so-called liberal who opposes them in practice.
Finally, I wish to come back to the opening quote from Mill. Our lost affinity for liberalism necessitated a lengthy affirmation of what liberalism is, and I was conscious that some phony liberals still have one intellectual grenade they like to lob into debates about free speech. That was why I chose the opening quote from Mill. Some will assert that Milo’s rights have not been infringed by anybody, so no harm has been done to him, and there are no negative consequences to his being banned from Twitter, or stopped from speaking at Berkeley, or protests that eventually succeeded in costing him a book deal, or his being disinvited from speaking at this years’ CPAC conference. They very specifically assert that Milo’s legal rights have not been affected because nobody is obliged to provide a platform for anyone else’s views. They are legally correct. However, they are being arbitrary about the requirements for liberalism to flourish in practice.
The law provides a framework for how we act in human society. It does not prescribe every detail of how we should behave. Mill was conscious that “society can and does execute its own mandates” and such mandates are familiar to many lefties who, like me, would argue against practices like slut-shaming, or barracking pregnant women as they enter an abortion clinic, or telling breastfeeding women to leave a public place. People can obey the law but still make poor choices that impinge on other people’s freedoms. Such societal mandates may also be found in the policies of a privately-owned communications business like Twitter, or in the choices made by a publisher or a conference organizer, or in the decision not to review works by a publisher who offends the reviewer’s sensibilities, or in the exhortation to ‘confront’ media businesses that present unpopular points of view. Mill explains that we all need a more general protection than that offered by law:
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 compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.
And who should provide this protection? It falls upon liberals to provide it, if they really believe in liberalism. They should not expect any of the opponents of liberalism to do it for them.
These are the reasons why liberals should not calmly accept the actions of those who want to censor Milo’s words. Milo gets a stage because he makes arguments that are interesting enough to pique BBC producers, and TV comedians, and Californian students, and podcast makers, and conference organizers. Some people clearly want to listen to what Milo has to say. Liberals should defend Milo’s right to, and access to, any and every channel of free expression. Nobody is required to put Milo on stage, but it is unhealthy to deny him a stage because others dislike what he says. Liberals should want to listen to opposing views, and Milo agrees with liberals on many important points of principle. When the stage is offered to Milo, and then taken away, liberals should question the reasons why, the challenge the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling.