In his book “on Liberty” John Stuart Mill gives an argument for free speech. An argument which should do very well in our time, but because of the encroachment of post-modernism, especially in the political sphere, it doesn’t have the punch it used to have.
Mill argues that freedom of speech, which includes the freedom to speak hatred and falsehoods, is a good because the free expression of such sentiments and ideas opens them up to public scrutiny and public approval and admiration or public rejection and ridicule. People who say the earth is flat can have their say and those who are informed enough to disprove them may do so. As a result, knowledge is increased and adherence to such false ideas is discouraged. It is discouraged because adherence to ideas which have been shown to be false damages one’s personal reputation. This is exemplified by the term “flat-earther” which commonly connotes being a half-wit.
When it comes to flat-earthers ordinary people may not be completely prepared to shoot down their arguments without some preparation. This is because flat-earthers commonly appeal to conspiracy to hold on to their beliefs and one rarely needs to defend the spherical form of the earth through explicitly scientific means. This lack of public understanding is probably why the claim that the earth is flat has garnered some new adherence in the last few years. Since the scientific evidences for the spherical nature of the earth is rarely discussed, people can be easily drawn into believing the earth is flat based on prima facie convincing evidence of its alleged flatness.
Now flat-earthers are few and far between, but there is another group of people who hold evidently false ideas which are not so small in number. This group of people use a far more ingenious method to escape public scrutiny. These people are postmodernists. Postmodernists believe that there is no such thing as truth, and that everything can be boiled down to structures of power. The denial of biological essentialism is one such example. Biological essentialism is the idea that there are features of human nature which it has by its nature, or as a natural essence. For example sex, the human being has as its nature two sexes (and a number of chromosome combinations of those two sexes which are statistically insignificant, e.g. XXY, XYY and XXX chromosome combinations). The number of people who deny that human beings have only two sexes is increasing more and more. So much so that a few years ago Nicholas Matte, Lecturer, Transgender Studies at the University of Toronto could openly say in an interview on Canadian television “Basically, it’s not correct, that there is such a thing as biological sex”. Now there must be a reason why someone would publicly make such an obviously false statement. The reason is that such people are protected from public criticism. They are protected from public criticism by what is called ‘political correctness’ and more specifically by ‘hate speech laws’. Without political correctness and hate speech laws Mill’s idea would work. The idea that there are no biological differences between men and women would be put up for public scrutiny, and everyone would quickly realise that men and women are biologically different. People who maintain the idea that there are no differences between men and women would be justly criticised for their obviously false beliefs, lecturers who make such claims would be immediately fired from their positions, and we would all move on to scrutinise the next opinion.
Unfortunately people find themselves incapacitated to perform this vital task. They are not merely incapacitated by social ostracism through misguided empathy, which is the driving motivator if the existence of truth in these matters is denied, but by threat of violence. After all, the state has put laws up which forbid the mere expression of ideas which someone may consider hate speech, never mind people who directly criticise and ridicule those who hold evidently false ideas.
The genius of Mill’s idea is that he anticipated a now recognised fault in human reasoning. I.e. the fault that we are all prone to biased reasoning, we all find it incredibly difficult to think of arguments against our own preciously held beliefs. Anyone who’s ever written a paper defending an original idea will know that sending it to someone who is diametrically opposed to you in whatever field you’re writing comes up with far more and better objections to your proposal than you can. Mill understood this aspect of human reasoning very well; he wrote “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that” (Mill, 2001 , p.35). Hence, the idea of political correctness, which stifles and even silences opposing ideas, undermines itself. Political correctness is like a fatal poison, to a healthy informed, knowledgeable and progressive society. It undermines by its very nature the pursuit of truth which is the summum bonum of human existence. Rather than encouraging the rejection of false ideas it encourages the rejection, and even legal persecution of those who hold ideas which are not in line with the opinions of some politically active elite.
Postmodernism is an important aspect of this entire problem. Unlike preceding philosophical traditions it denies the existence of truth which those traditions all held in high regard, a denial so ridiculous that it is self-referentially inconsistent. With the absence of truth as a primary good, all that is left is feelings. And I believe that this is the primary reason why there is so much focus on offense-taking in contemporary political and social criticism. It is therefore unsurprising that political correctness is a favoured club with which postmodernists beat others over the head. The main purpose of political correctness is ideological homogeneity, because through ideological homogeneity one can be protected from those who have differing opinions about the legitimacy of one's feelings. This culture is the exact opposite of what Mill envisaged for a modern society. It is an idea perfectly suited for tyranny, because like any tyrannical method, it forces homogeneity through its own opinion, rather than seeking for truth by allowing a diversity of opinions.
Mill, On Liberty, Batoche Books, 2001