The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism, by Russell Blackford. Bloomsbury $26.95/£19.99
Russell Blackford is one of our best contemporary advocates of the traditional, liberal ethos, as expressed by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. His latest book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism, comes at a time when freedom of thought and expression face new challenges in the West, as a result of a new wave of post-1960’s social justice activism and thought that has acquired a distinctive potency, by way of the internet and social media, which have become ubiquitous thanks to the near-universal proliferation of smart-phones and other portable computing devices.
About a third of The Tyranny of Opinion is devoted to characterising and defending the liberal account of freedom of thought and expression as developed by Mill, with further input from Frederick Schauer’s Free Speech: A Philosophical Inquiry and Glenn Loury’s article “Self-Censorship in Public Discourse: A Theory of ‘Political Correctness’ and Related Phenomena”. To the extent that his view is expressible in a single formula, Blackford offers us the following, repeated several times throughout the book: We need free speech to participate meaningfully in democratic deliberation, to pursue understanding and knowledge boldly, for our self-development or self-actualisation, and to challenge various claims of authority over our lives (and thereby, to protect all our other freedoms).
Blackford’s defence takes account of some of the more common criticisms directed towards Mill – for example, with regard to the idea that a maximally liberal market of ideas is always conducive to discovering the truth – and comes across as essentially pragmatic in many of its points, the general sense being that just as democracy is the worst political system except for all the others, liberalism may be the worst political ethos, except for all the others. With the exception of certain specific contexts, neither governments nor ordinary people evince the competence or virtue to be trusted with the suppression of individuals’ liberty, so even given the acknowledged difficulty in defining precisely what constitutes the sort of “harm” that legitimises state censorship or social censure, our governing disposition should be one that is maximally – though in certain cases defeasibly – committed to individual freedom of thought and expression.
The second third of Tyranny of Opinion makes the case that we should be concerned about contemporary challenges to the liberal ethos, primarily, though not exclusively, from the camp of progressive social justice and identity politics. Here, Blackford focuses on a number of high profile cases, with which most readers will already be familiar, including notably: the case of Nicholas and Ericka Christakis at Yale; the case of Brett Weinstein at Evergreen College; the case of Maajid Awaz and the Southern Poverty Law Center; and the case of Rebecca Tuvel and the journal Hypatia. Some may complain that this is well-trodden territory, but as Blackford observes at the beginning of the book’s final chapter, that there even is a crisis of freedom of thought and expression today is contested by any number of prominent thinkers, like philosophers Kate Manne and Jason Stanley, to take just two notable examples.
Blackford is particularly concerned with the role played by social media in the attack on people’s freedom of thought and expression, in light of its unique capacity to accumulate angry online mobs and to efficiently communicate their ire, as part of efforts to destroy peoples’ reputations and livelihoods. His discussion, on this front, is aided by a substantial discussion of Jon Ronson’s New York Times’ bestselling book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and Angela Nagle’s Kill all Normies: The Online Culture Wars from Tumblr and 4-Chan to the Alt-Right and Trump.
The final third of the book is devoted to the search for solutions; to the question of how we might shore-up the commitment to the liberal ethos in public discourse and combat its ongoing erosion which. In this regard, Blackford offers what any reasonable person can only think is good advice, condensed and summarised in fifteen propositions, some of the most important of which include:
1. Remember, liberalism and (especially) freedom of speech are about social power in general, not just governmental power.
5. Religious, cultural, and ethnic communities are not sacrosanct, though their members’ civil rights should be. Don’t side with communities against their own dissidents.
6. We should apply the same rule to friends and foes. Is it good enough for a foe to be fired for conduct that offends a friend? Fine, then it’s good enough for a friend to be fired for conduct that offends a foe.
10. Trial by media (including trial by social media) is usually a bad idea … The criminal and civil courts are the right places to deal with serious allegations against individuals.
Russell Blackford is shaping up to be one of our great public philosophers, helping to bridge the space between academic inquiry and public discourse. The Tyranny of Opinion perfectly negotiates this territory, in that it is thorough and rigorous in its treatment of the subject, just shy of what would be required for a purely academic monograph, while also being accessible even to a moderately educated audience. In this regard, it is a perfect example of public philosophy done at its highest levels, something which we all very much need in these increasingly contentious, fractious times.