Cancel culture: can you defend people who say unpopular things?

Unthinkable: Rival political philosophers can bring perspective to our current debates

A troubling feature of modern debate is so much of it never gets to the point of exchanging views. Opposing positions are prejudged and must be shut down rather than listened to, according to the logic of language police from across the political spectrum.

Whatever about the impact on societal development, think for a moment how this affects the intellectual health of each one of us. Testing an argument, or thinking aloud, is not advisable when one clumsily phrased expression is enough to invite a social media lynch mob (and, of course, even to use the phrase “lynch mob” is enough to attract the accusation of cultural appropriation and, in turn, a proverbial lynch mob). So the little censor in our head smothers potentially problematic thoughts at birth.

A useful intervention would be to remind ourselves of the arguments for free speech, probably the most famous of which comes from John Stuart Mill, the 19th century political philosopher. In On Liberty (1859), he says freedom of expression should be allowed in all cases expect where real and direct harm can be proven. Refreshingly from today's perspective, he avoids a rights-based stance and highlights instead the benefits to individuals and society of the robust and unrestricted circulation of ideas.

Mill says to suppress any opinion is to assume you are infallible.

Ireland is fortunate to have several expert communicators on Mill, including K.C. O'Rourke, who has an oft-referenced book on the English thinker, and NUI Galway philosopher John Danaher who has a detailed analysis of Mill's theories on his blog.


Another expert is Graham Finlay, the US-born academic who teaches Mill to politics students at UCD. Today's Unthinkable guest, he argues that Mill is best read in tandem with the German philosopher Herbert Marcuse, whose 1965 essay Repressive Tolerance can be seen to justify aspects of today's cancel culture.

Is Mill’s argument for free speech still the gold standard in political philosophy?

Graham Finlay: “One of the weirdest things about Mill is that he has become this talismanic figure. So people think they can just waive On Liberty and that ends the argument, which is a strange way to use an argument which is all about the need for the give and take of ideas.

“In On Liberty he gives an argument by cases, which suggests that, for societies which are capable of freedom, in all cases allowing freedom of speech will benefit society and will help people who participate. He says if the opinion you’re planning on suppressing is true then people in society lose the opportunity of exchanging falsehood for truth.

“If the opinion which is to be suppressed is false then society and the people who watch or participate in these debates lose the benefit of having their true beliefs be based on their actual knowledge of what’s wrong with opposing beliefs and what’s right about theirs. He argues, in this case, that our beliefs become mere prejudices held largely on authority unless they are tested by the best which our opponent can raise against them.

“The final case is quite common, which is when there is truth on both sides. Very often, he says, the opinion which is to be suppressed has part of the truth that needs to be brought to the fore because society needs this correction. One of the examples he uses is how Rousseau’s romantic attachment to the simple, pastoral life was a necessary correction to the more cosmopolitan notions of the Enlightenment.”

His view seems to clash with the modern liberal position that public speech needs to be closely policed to avoid far-right views taking hold. Is Mill suggesting that people are doing a public service by advancing false opinions?

“This is something Mill is a bit ambivalent about. He is not just talking about one opinion which is true or false against another opinion which is its opposite. He sees the truth as bigger than simply true propositions or facts. There are whole-world views and ways of looking at things, and he sees this public clash as important, and part of the benefits brought to society.

“I think one of the somewhat dangerous things in our current society is that people seem to move between two visions of what truth is and what speech does. On the one hand, you have the libertarian view - that you have no right to stop me from staying stuff, you should just leave me alone, you shouldn’t even criticise me. And that’s not Mill’s view. He is not a rights theorist. He is a consequentialist; he is a utilitarian. He believes that speech acts have consequences.

“On the other hand, there’s the view that these social theories or world views have almost magical powers to take over people’s minds. People with this view would say that Mill is wrong and that people aren’t able to make up their own minds and, if we are going to have these debates, people are going to have a desire to feel superior to other groups, and we are in a society where anti-racists aren’t going to get a fair hearing.”

How does Herbert Marcuse comes in this?

“He says in our contemporary society we are so indoctrinated by capitalist, corporate culture and by racism, sexism and classism that adults are not capable of benefiting from the free exchange of opinion.

“So he says we should not tolerate these racist, sexist, classist views. Rather we should break up their meetings. He says it’s not to the benefit of society that these views are given an airing because these views are pernicious.

“Mill is ultimately making a bet that freedom of speech is going to be of benefit to society under almost all cases and Marcuse is calling him on that bet, and I think that’s particularly challenging in our age of social media where speech is that much more hateful; there are no filters and the most egregious falsehoods look as credible as the truth.”

Does it come down to how one defines harm?

“Mill says unless your actions or speech are directly harming other people they should be protected. He gives the example of saying that corn dealers are ‘starvers of the poor’. That’s protected speech when it’s in a publication but it’s a very different thing if you say it to an angry mob in front of the house of a corn dealer.

“So he recognises speech has consequences and the people concerned about racist speech are rightly concerned that racist speech and racist world-views do actual harm. Mill is alive to that but he thinks, in a liberal society, we can have these discussions which don’t require the actual suppression of those attitudes without them even being given a critical hearing.

“He is very suspicious of offence. Merely being offensive is an insufficient warrant to intervene, either through laws or the social sanction - the tyranny of the majority.”

What would Mill say about the debate on facemasks? Many people today say merely discussing the issue does real harm by undermining the public health efforts.

“Mill says to suppress any opinion is to assume you are infallible. He says there is a danger of people accepting what everyone agrees right now, not noting that in the past eminent persons believed something completely different.

“Mill would say we should have the debate. Even though I believe masks are helpful, I am taking this on authority. If I’m not confronted by anti-maskers and whatever they are pointing to I am just going to believe the public health authorities.

“Whereas if that debate is going on, I might go and click on the debate and see the studies that are being cited and maybe I’ll read the abstracts and say: Now I know why there is a benefit to us all wearing masks; now I have my opinions based on evidence or argument, whereas before I just took them on the basis of authority.”

Mill was in a liberal minority, campaigning against an oppressive majority. How important is the historical context to his argument?

“Mill was aware he had a minority viewpoint his entire life. He attained incredible intellectual eminence by the middle of the 19th century where he dominated philosophy in England, political science and political economy, and he blew all this cultural capital on extremely unpopular causes with which he later became identified, like the enfranchisement and liberation of women.

“Cancel culture is very much in the air today, and what Mill would say is: Suppose someone has a view that I think is pernicious and does actual harm, do I have to hang out with those people, or buy their books, or listen to their radio stations? Mill says, no you don’t but we shouldn’t deprive people of their livelihoods because they hold an unpopular opinion.

“He is thinking of someone who denies the existence of God or the Trinity. You could lose your job if you weren’t a Christian, and he says you shouldn’t deny someone the ability to make a living because they have an unpopular opinion.

“Mill wants to defend these people who do unpopular things but it doesn’t require us to hang around with them. This is difficult in a time when corporations are very quick to get rid of people to protect their brand.

“If there’s one thing we should take away from Mill it is this vision of a diverse society where people listen to each other even if they are not necessarily changing their minds. But this diverse society is only going to work if we are going to ratchet down the attacks.

“We don’t have respect each other’s views; we can call them out for being racist; we can criticise each other. But we should hear the argument and then identify what we find to be racist in it rather than going straight to the cancelling.”

In their own words:

JS Mill: "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."

Herbert Marcuse: "Part of [the] struggle is the fight against an ideology of tolerance which, in reality, favours and fortifies the conservation of the status quo of inequality and discrimination."