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A fair hearing
J.S. Mill and American society in the post-9/11 era



Amir Azarvan
July 11, 2005

The post-9/11 era has necessitated a serious talk on freedom of expression in the United States. One may question the importance of such a discussion on the ground that this right is formally guaranteed in the First Amendment, which bars Congress from making laws "... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press... "

Yet, as British philosopher, John Stuart Mill, had pointed out nearly a century and a half ago in his unforgettable work, On Liberty, the government does not constitute the only potential threat to an individual‚s right to freely express his/her views. More ominous, according to Mill, was societal repression. Indeed, he believed that "... whatever crushes individuality is despotism," regardless of the form of government that one lives under. 

In light of the fact that freedom of expression - as well as other rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution - gives meaning to America as a nation, it is incumbent upon Americans to reflect on the extent to which they, as a society, honor this right in practice. I believe there is warrant to argue that if Mill were alive, he would be disheartened by the current situation in the U.S.

Consider, for instance, the barrage of insults hurled at actress, Maggie Gyllenhaal, in response to comments she made last April. As she stated in regards to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, "it is always useful as individuals or nations to ask how we may have knowingly or unknowingly contributed to this conflict."

To be sure, everyone is entitled to disagree with Ms. Gyllenhaal. Yet many have done so in an extremely harsh, non-intellectual manner. She has been dismissed as an "America-basher", a "wench", and an "idiot". One critic, in a comment issued directly at Ms. Gyllenhaal, wrote, "The slime that is under the tree in the swamp is smarter than you." And, of course, she was urged to move to Canada.

Why should we bother listening to Ms. Gyllenhaal, in spite of her provocative views? Mill offers several reasons against an a priori dismissal of an opinion, however controversial it may be.

The first, obvious, reason is that it may in fact be true.

Second, even if the opinion is false, it may, and typically does, contain an element of truth; and since the prevailing opinion rarely, if ever, represents the whole truth, considering opposing opinions is the only chance we have of obtaining the remainder of the truth.

Third, even if the dominant opinion is wholly true, unless it is thoroughly challenged, the grounds upon which it rests will hardly be understood. Finally, the very meaning of the doctrine will be at risk of being lost or weakened, and deprived of its ability to shape people‚s character and conduct.

If there is in fact at least a portion of truth in what Ms. Gyllenhaal claimed, as Mill would expect there to be, then Americans refusing to take her views into consideration would be depriving themselves of a fuller understanding of the causes behind 9/11. Consequently, moreover, they would contribute less to the prevention of similar tragedies in the future.

The blind nationalism of those - many of whom, I am certain, are otherwise well-intentioned and patriotic - who are unwilling to give such opinions a fair hearing would, in other words, render America less safe in the years to come.

My purpose is not to advance any particular viewpoint regarding the causes behind 9/11 (which is not to say that I do not have one). Nor do I, myself, necessarily adhere wholeheartedly to Mill‚s ideas.

My objective, rather, is to draw attention to the irony that many in the U.S., primarily for nationalistic reasons, are silencing views they deem unpatriotic, even though an individual‚s right to speak his/her mind - so passionately defended in Mill's work - forms a fundamental part of America's political identity.

Amir Azarvan is a doctoral student in political science at Georgia State University.

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