Our topic for this week is: "Connecting up communications with freedom and democracy: free speech; the ability to perform it and public opinion: (Mill)"

Last week we talked about Identity in relation to Sherry Turkle's work on why and how users of social media were so entrapped in their own 'solipsistic' mediated world.

We (in the Thursday group I seem to remember) referred to the GQ editor Dylan Evans's suggestion that 'I-pod therefore I am' - by which he meant that for the i-pod generation a few years back, they were attached to a music player that circuited from their mind (chosen music to be recorded)  to a machine (recorded music)  back to the mind that listened to the chosen music ...that confirmed the wisdom of the choice in the first place.

This 'mind back into mind' process is not dissimilar from Turkle's point about not taking risks with the conversation of the outside world. One wraps up oneself in one's own determinations - Descartes's idea of affirming existence via an act of self-consciousness.

In this highly determined world of media-dependent and shaped existential and ontological (self-) security (social theorist, Anthony Giddens' terms) what sense can we make of freedom?

Key Questions for this week's session:

Does freedom come from a generation within oneself as a felt secure identity in-oneself...OR from interactions with the world of debate, conversation, being challenged to speak and think...which requires an openess to all kinds of information in relation to reflection, criticism, thought, analysis and choice.

Is one free in the relative absence of education and cultural etc knowledge?


Does media now by its multiplicity allow us to ghetto-ise information to only what amuses us etc?


..and by this we dis-able ourselves to discuss and debate..and in this weak intellectual state we rely on feeling and aggression and 'anti-elitist' resentment? (we're tired of experts)


Has one an obligation to think and reflect even if it does not come 'naturally'?


How stupid does the media make us?

Is insecurity precisely freedom - the never closed. In larger terms - remember the totalitarian countries of the old Eastern bloc before 1989 and currently Hungary, China, Russia, Saudi, and many others who close down/censor information for the sake of 'the State' (usually the interests of government/regime control).


But so often this is presented coercively..persuasively to the simple-minded as the protection of 'the people'..or of religious sensibilities..or of not giving offense to other lifestyles.


Can there be hate crimes? Yes there can be literally hate speech..but should that be criminalised? and for the sake of what?


Is it not simply bad manners rather than a matter for the law? And should it therefore be responded to by reasons and argument rather than via the courts?


And at this point we have to return to John Sturt Mill's classic work On Liberty (1859) wherein he defends the right to challenge and argue against..and thereby offend the sensibilities of...everybody who believes differently  about this or that.  In other words he defends the right of the individual to be free from the control of the tyranny of social opinion. It is ones duty to be an enemy of the people! 



Below is an extract from Mill's 'Essay on Liberty': read the below (unless you wish to read all of it - see link)...  and think what it means about liberty today in the context of popular opinion, opinion tending on social media, giving offense, and majoritarian democracy.

"The “people” who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the “self-government” spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of  power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein. This view of things, recommending itself equally to the intelligence of thinkers and to the inclination of those important classes in European society to whose real or supposed interests democracy is adverse, has had no difficulty in establishing itself; and in political speculations “the tyranny of the majority” is now generally  included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard.


Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of thepublic authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society isitself the tyrant—society collectively over the separate individuals whocompose it—its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates insteadof 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 compels all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism."


The practical principle which guides them to their opinions on the regulation of human conduct, is the feeling in each person’s mind that everybody should be required to act as he, and those with whom he sympathises, would like them to act. No one, indeed, acknowledges to himself that his standard of judgment is his own liking; but an opinion on a point of conduct, not supported by reasons, can only count as one person’s preference; and if the reasons, when given, are a mere appeal to a similar preference felt by other people, it is still only many people’s liking instead of one. To an ordinary man, however, his own preference, thus supported, is not only a perfectly satisfactory reason, but the only one he generally has for any of his notions of morality, taste, or propriety, which are not expressly written in his religious creed; and his chief guide in the interpretation even of that.


The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."


The classic response to Mill was made  a century later by Patrick Devlin (Prof of Juriprudence at Oxford and a Law Lord) in his set of lectures (1959) of which his British Academy address:  'The Enforcement of Morals'.. (1958) is the eponymous paper. Essentially Devlin argued that society after careful reflective consideration (and NOT by mere personal or subjective objections) has a right and an obligation to censor what it deems harmful to the sovereign interests of the society. But Devlin realises that accepts that this may change and thus as such he is a moral relativist.

and the response to that was by Bernard Williams, the philosopher, when he chaired the 1978 government ordered Inquiry into Obscenity. Or on Nelson (UoN Library)

And a superb article by Ronald Dworkin on Devlin's key arguments