Consulting Mr Mill

G mentioned, and quoted a bit of, On Liberty yesterday. I’d been thinking of quoting it myself, and G sent me to the right bit to quote, so here is some more. From the last paragraph of Chapter 2.

Before quitting the subject of freedom of opinion, it is fit to take some notice of those who say, that the free expression of all opinions should be permitted, on condition that the manner be temperate, and do not pass the bounds of fair discussion. Much might be said on the impossibility of fixing where these supposed bounds are to be placed; for if the test be offence to those whose opinion is attacked, I think experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, appears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intemperate opponent.

That’s just it, you see. Theists and fans of faith were always going to say that atheists were too noisy and ‘militant’ and dogmatic and whatever other stick came to hand. Of course they were. They weren’t going to like explicit atheism, and once the explicit atheism hit the best-seller lists, well – the result was what you might call overdetermined. Of course they would say atheists were too noisy! For the very reason that Mill suggests. Shouting that atheists are too noisy is a lot easier than arguing. So to conclude that therefore atheists really are too noisy and should be more quiet now so that…so that I’m not sure what, is to conclude too much.

With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denunciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation. Yet whatever mischief arises from their use, is greatest when they are employed against the comparatively defenceless; and whatever unfair advantage can be derived by any opinion from this mode of asserting it, accrues almost exclusively to received opinions.


In general, opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate even in a slight degree without losing ground: while unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them. For the interest, therefore, of truth and justice, it is far more important to restrain this employment of vituperative language than the other; and, for example, if it were necessary to choose, there would be much more need to discourage offensive attacks on infidelity, than on religion.

Thank you and good evening.

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