“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.” John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill is one of the great defenders of liberty of all time, a classically liberal thinker who championed free speech, and spirited debate. Central to his work was the belief that the purpose of arguing wasn’t to win, or even to come to consensus—but to get at the truth. For him, the greatest threat to liberty and the democratic society wasn’t that human beings were often foolish and made bad choices. He took that as a given. Instead, he worried that the greater threat was the human tendency to use the power of majority and consensus to “win” arguments, rather than allowing truth itself to win.
Unless you have been living in a vacuum, you may have noticed that our country has been wracked by a series of contentious debates over how we should govern ourselves. Again, such debates are nothing new, and, if taken up in the proper spirit, our attempts to contend with one another to discover the right, the true, and the good form the lifeblood of what it means to live as a free and democratic people.
But when we contend with one another by allowing majority and consensus to justify silencing those with opposing views, we not only abandon any hope for discovering the truth, but also abandon any hope we have of holding onto our liberty.
What keeps me up at night, and has steadily done so for more than a decade, is the momentum that ideologues have gained in turning almost every aspect of our lives into a political power struggle, a zero-sum game of “winners” and “losers” or “lovers” and “haters.”
While history has shown that totalitarian regimes can form on both the right and left side of the political spectrum, as a classical liberal (when it comes to my teaching approach) I am most horrified by the silencing of debate by members of the “progressive” left—especially on college campuses. Let me state up front that I am equally horrified by some of the ideas and uncivilized behavior and discourse coming from the right side of the aisle as well. But the real danger transcends either major political party, and any of the most contentious issues they are at war with each other over. That danger can be summed up in one word: Ideology.
Merriam Webster Online lists a three-part definition for IDEOLOGY:
–a manner, or the content of thinking characteristic
of an individual, group, or culture
–the integrated theories, assertions, or aims that constitute
a sociopolitical program
–a systematic body of concepts, especially about human life
For the sake of simplicity—because we have increasingly become a nation of simplistic ideologues—I will define ideology and ideological thinking as the tendency to look at the world through a narrow lens that only confirms what you want the truth to be, rather than what the truth really is. This wouldn’t be so bad if ideologues didn’t try to impose their skewed or impartial grasp of reality on the rest of us. Unfortunately, that is just what has been happening, and now we are in danger of not only destroying our university and educational systems, but also of destroying our democratic institutions of government as well. In future blogs I will try to discuss these dangers in a more concrete manner. But for now, I offer this one dictum for clearly thinking about ANY topic—throw away your ideological glasses, start trying to discover truth and reality by examining them head on (with both your head and your heart), and stop trying to conjure up an imaginary truth and reality with the magical wand of your preferred ideology.