Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

WAYBACK MACHINE: On Liberty and Self Censorship

Forgive me for reprinting this diary from December 08, but it’s just to start a conversation about what the Moose stands for – especially now we have plenty of new members.

We’re a diverse bunch, politically:  we don’t form any kind of faction or clique within any political party. We come from all wings of the Dem Party, many Independents, and several ‘Dang Furrners’. But we’ve united under the banner of ‘progress through politics‘ and therefore consider ourselves progressives with an eye to getting things done, and the world improved. This has led to us coming out in support of your current President on most occasions, but we’re far from uncritical. And of course the values we share will outlive any particular politician.

So please use the ramblings below to put your points of view across. The new comment thread starts here

Still recovering from this last amazing year, I’ve been reading the works of the original progressive blogfather. No I don’t mean the proprietor of MYDD, but the guy who effectively coined the term ‘Progressive‘. He was a Brit too – naturellement – one of the earliest and most vocal proponents of feminism and female equality, and also a bit of a looker.

John Stuart Mill’s treatise On Liberty is a brilliant exposition of why dissent, debate and occasional vitriol is a vital aspect of a truly progressive discussion.

When, in a previous diary, I asked the Moose What does Progressive Mean Now? the response was wonderfully motley and diverse:  this is something that J.S. Mill would approve of.

Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.

There are so many quotations from this book I’d love to share with you, but for the sake of brevity in this festive season, I’ll concentrate on Mill’s take on argument and dissent. The whole pamphlet On Liberty is a celebration of the collision of ideas, and he abhors nothing more than group think.

The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or as fellow-citizens, to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature, that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power.

As we’ve seen on other blogs (I shouldn’t have to mention their orange names) the pressure to conform to others is immense, and to put Mill’s premise in a nutshell, he believes that all of us are enhanced when we protect minority opinions even when they are unpopular – in fact especially when they’re unpopular.

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…

All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.

He then draws examples throughout history of great thinkers who were scorned and ignored and silenced in their own lifetime (think Socrates and Jesus).

the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.

That’s telling us. In other words, “the interests of truth require a diversity of opinions”, even if that leads to conflicts and flame wars.

Truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites, that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness, and it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners…

Spacemanspliff has Koan’s line about ‘self censorship’ being the biggest danger in the progressive blogosphere, and Mill provides support for this. We often bite our tongues when confronted with opinions we don’t share, but this runs the danger that these opinions never get tested in debate. It’s not about who wins the argument: in fact the combatants themselves might be fairly irrelevant. What matters more is what the ‘lurkers‘ or bystanders perceive:

It is not on the impassioned partisan, it is on the calmer and more disinterested bystander, that this collision of opinions works its salutary effect. Not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil; there is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides; it is when they attend only to one that errors harden into prejudices, and truth itself ceases to have the effect of truth, by being exaggerated into falsehood.

So, as an early holiday gift after this phenomenal year in politics, online and offline, please enjoy a one hundred and fifty year old celebration of the liberal blogosphere by a crabby old Brit. Mill has much more to say about how to turn this freedom of  opinion into freedom of action and lifestyle, but I’ll write that up a second diary next week.

Meanwhile, here’s his summation of the importance of liberty of expression and thought.

We have now recognised the necessity to the mental well-being of mankind (on which all their other well-being depends) of freedom of opinion, and freedom of the expression of opinion, on four distinct grounds; which we will now briefly recapitulate.

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.

Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.

And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.

UPDATE: 09/16/2011: The new comment thread starts here


  1. Progressiveness is actually the polar opposite of ‘political correctness’ and preconceived policy prescriptions. It’s a way of making progress by keeping some kind of open mind.  

  2. Mill’s writings had a great deal of influence on me when I studied him in college. My already formed beliefs matched with Mill on many subjects. I need to reread some of his publications.

    Mill was anti-slavery, pro-free speech, pro-liberty, pro-women’s rights, and for free markets with some regulation. His book, The Subjugation of Women, was published not long after the end of our Civil War. It was a staple on the reading list during the feminism movement of the 60’s.

  3. These are true progressive beliefs as I see progressiveness.

    John Stuart Mill (1806-73) “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

    “Thus, a people may prefer a free government, but if, from indolence, or carelessness, or cowardice, or want of public spirit, they are unequal to the exertions necessary for preserving it; if they will not fight for it when it is directly attacked; if they can be deluded by the artifices used to cheat them out of it; if by momentary discouragement, or temporary panic, or a fit of enthusiasm for an individual, they can be induced to lay their liberties at the feet even of a great man, or trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions; in all these cases they are more or less unfit for liberty: and though it may be for their good to have had it even for a short time, they are unlikely long to enjoy it.”

    Too many Americans lay their liberties at the feet of G. W. Bush. We’d better not do it again, even with a Lincoln or a Washington. Or, an Obama.  

  4. spacemanspiff


    (emphasis mine)

    He was a Brit too – naturellement – one of the earliest and most vocal proponents of feminism and female equality, and also a bit of a looker.

    Sorry peeps. Couldn’t resist.

    Yes. I thought this was worth a post.

    I’m shallow like that.

  5. …so new comments can come in below. We all revise our opinions over time. I now would love to revise this:

    “John Stuart Mill’s treatise On Liberty is a brilliant exposition of why dissent, debate and occasional vitriol is a vital aspect of a truly progressive discussion.”

    I’ve grown up. I firmly now believe that vitriol and negativity and flame wars are – whatever their political motivation – deeply unprogressive, because they cause minds to become closed, for discussion to seize up, and dogmatic defensive positions to be taken.

    Civil, if impassioned debate, seems to me to actually be key to progressive thought.

    But then again… what do I know? Please feel free to radically disagree

  6. dirkster42

    These will probably be disconnected thoughts that will require another cup of coffee and maybe a few hours of review in a library to make sense, but here goes…

    First, nowadays, “progressive” means the word we ran to when FOX news and friends made it difficult to say “liberal” with any political clout behind it.  So, although I use progressive all the time, it does feel like an acknowledgment of defeat.

    Second, “liberal” and “progressive” are not the same, and have very different histories.  Liberal, I think Thomas Jefferson, our friend Mill up there, Susan B. Anthony, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes.  It’s the tradition of broad-mindedness, free-thinking (though I have yet to meet a free thinker who feels free to think 2+2=5), freedom from authoritarianism, but from a position of enough comfort that power and society don’t have to be thought about as predominantly negative forces.

    “Progressive” I think of more as optimistic action from positions of relative powerlessness, where power has to be much more clearly articulated at a basic level than is necessary in liberalism.  I think unions and the civil rights movement.

    And then there’s “radicalism,” which takes a negative view of power and society, which really looks at the way that the social order that is absolutely necessary for human flourishing is always stacked against someone – affirming someone’s humanity at the cost of someone else’s, and takes that negativity as its goad to continual critique, in the hopes of betterment, but not necessarily with an optimistic sense of being able to achieve progress.

    Politics is always making choices where the rubber hits the road, and various options get omitted or compromised beyond recognition.  Still, as far as political reflection goes, I think it’s important to keep some suppleness and flexibility in place and be able to see in what situations a liberal analysis is most useful, in what situations a progressive analysis is most useful, and in what situations a radical analysis is most useful.

  7. sricki

    have missed this the first time around… not sure — started rec’ing the old thread and got confused (and got all excited because I thought Holz was back — then saw the comment was from 2008). Whatever the case, I didn’t remember this diary, so I’m very glad to see it up.

    Now I may scroll through the comments and find that I yapped in here almost 3 years ago. Heh.

    It’s an excellent piece though, Peter.

  8. mahakali overdrive

    John Stuart Mill is one of my great heroes. And I don’t usually use strong words like that. But hands down, yes. He is just one of the greats in my view. I think I need to read, and re-read, him regularly.

    I’ll put him on par with Marx. They both have sway over my political ideals in different, but highly complimentary, ways.

    Why am I not surprised to see that Moosers love Mills?

    He’s the original real deal.  

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