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The Nice Attacks: A Disproof of J.S Mill’s “On Liberty”?

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Two days ago, a man in Nice drove a truck through a crowd killing 84 victims and injuring countless more. His actions have had wider repercussions than the ending these innocent lives, they have bought immeasurable pain to families and friends and hit of the French public with another collective loss. He has catalysed the unraveling of French liberality. Already there have been calls for all people under suspicion, but yet to commit acts that warrant arrest to be tracked more closely, even to be taken into custody. Muslims as a whole have been blamed, by some, for having a religion that perpetuates unhealthy radicalism, or that is not compatible with the West at all. Litigation and the government are the only elements that the public can turn to and they expect protection. This protection is likely to be demanded at the cost of liberal principles as has already been seen in France with the banning of the burka or the increasingly invasive surveillance programs the government receives pressure to run.

157 years ago, in 1859 John Stewart Mill, a man who had started life as a child prodigy, and who would end his life as a celebrated writer, philosopher, and Member of Parliament wrote his groundbreaking work “On Liberty”. In this text he dedicates an entire chapter to a defense of Freedom of Opinion called “On Liberty of Thought and Discussion”. In this chapter he creates an argument that states that in order to move closer to ‘truth’ we must allow maximum discussion and refrain from persecuting the ‘heretics’ of the world. In doing so he makes two key claims: that letting opposition be voiced is a good way to strengthen the status quo, or uncover its flaws, and that these oppositionists will never be able to warp a society permanently if they are wrong in their claims. Is this a description of a society that no longer exists, or can Mill’s model work in modern France just as it did in C19 England?

So-called Islamic State could be characterized, in the context of France, as the oppositionists that Mill describes in “On Liberty”. They are voicing a minority view and arguing that things should be different to how they are currently accepted to be in the West. For example, they preach that women are subservient and homosexuals not worthy of life at all, both of which are ideas contradicted by French law. They want religious law reinstated; they believe morality and justice must come only from their interpretation of the word of Allah. This principle is broadly denied in France, as demonstrated by the legality of alcohol, the free press that criticizes the Islamic faith and the fact that Islamic clothing for women is not enforced or even encouraged by the state.

The first argument that Mill makes is that one has nothing to lose by letting an oppositionist hold an argument because if they are wrong then we will gain “a clearer perception and livelier impression of the truth”. In France, and the West more generally, there has been a trend of people voting for politicians that progress rights and secular ideas of justice, for example, Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the UK, when he stood for office was not a practicing Christian but converted to be one when he finished his service because the UK public expected him to be seen as secular and practicing of liberal reason. They would consider this opinion to be ‘true’. Thus, Mill’s argument would follow that allowing radicals to argue against these principles would simply uncover how wrong they were and would eradicate their threat. However, we know that this is not the case and radicalization has become more and more of an issue in European states over the past few years. Mill fails to see that life is not a perfectly conducted balanced debate and to make it such would be impossible. Social media, the Internet and easy travel of information make debates more unequal than they have ever been. They are no longer conducted at pulpits and in parliament, they go on every day in people’s homes, and they affect those people’s lives. To be exposed to radical Islam is not to be part of a debate on it, it’s to be indoctrinated by it against all reason and to the extent where your own life no longer feels as important as your newfound morality. It is to take on a role as violator of the freedom of others and to be lied to. One of the key principles by which so-called ISIS recruit is that the Western states, as part of the crusades, divided a once harmonious Muslim world for the first time and that it must be reunited. This is simply an untruth; the issue of warring caliphates has been very much present in the Islamic world since the faith began. Why is this claim not uncovered as an untruth to new recruits? Because no debate is conducted, and there is no balanced means by which that claim is likely to be rebutted for a venerable and isolated individual who may turn to so-called ISIS.

Mill then, gives us a very apt description, like that which many have used to attempt to silence the freedom of opinion of fundamentalists that have taken responsibility for the Nice killings: “We forbid bad men to pervert our society by the propagation of opinions which we regard as false”. He then argues that this is not a valid response to an opinion, because to regard something as true is distinct from stopping potential for it’s refutation. He, by doing this, claims that a false opinion is unable to “pervert a society” at all. But we know this is not true in a modern world. Whether the example of Hitler capitalizing on what is now proven to be a “false” opinion that the Jews were to blame for Germany’s problems in the 1930s, or the Rwandan Hutu extremists propagating a myth of presidential murder to whip up public hatred in the 1990s, “false” opinions can very much pervert a society. In both these cases the outcome was genocide, but this same phenomenon can be seen almost universally around the world. Maybe Mill would argue that these were temporary changes to the mindsets of each country, but in a modern world of guns, bombs, mass media and fast action, ‘temporary’ can still very much equate with ‘damaging’.

John Stewart Mill is rightly one of the most celebrated philosophers of all time, but the events in Nice, and in the wider modern world show that his ideas neglect to allow for the harsh practicalities of the modern political world. In the 1800s life was very different, and maybe “On Liberty” is beginning to show its age.

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