J.S. Mill and American
society in the post-9/11 era
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.
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
he would be disheartened by the current situation in the U.S.
instance, the barrage of insults hurled at actress, Maggie Gyllenhaal,
to comments she made last April. As she stated in regards to the terrorist attacks
11, 2001, "it is always useful as individuals or nations to ask how we
may have knowingly or unknowingly contributed to this conflict."
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
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
contain an element of truth; and since the prevailing opinion rarely, if
ever, represents the whole truth, considering opposing opinions is the
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
causes behind 9/11. Consequently, moreover, they would contribute less
to the prevention of similar tragedies in the future.
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,
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,
adhere wholeheartedly to Mill‚s ideas.
My objective, rather, is
to draw attention to the irony that many in the U.S., primarily for
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.