JOHN STUART MILL AND THE HORROR IN NORWAY

When faced with appalling events such as those that occured in Norway yesterday it can be difficult to respond rationally. The murder of so many young people who were guilty of nothing more than enthusiasm and idealism inspires pity, grief, anger and disbelief. There’s no reason that could excuse such an act but that it has been committed by a madman whose motivations appear to be driven by allegiance to a lunatic ideology of xenophobia and hatred strikes particularly hard at those who, like me, believe that politics (and even, sometimes, the conflict of fierce political argument) is a force for good in our society, an essential part of the struggle to create a better society.

There is a particular (though admittedly minor) irony in these events that Breivik, the man who appears to have brought this horror to pass, chose to use a quote [turns out it was a misquote – see comments below – I should have checked more carefully] from John Stuart Mill in one of his few public statements. In a twitter message a few days before the bombing in Oslo and the massacre on Utoeya he used this quote from Mill:

“One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests.”

Of all the philosophers one could choose to justify indiscriminate murder, Mill seems the strangest for he is one who frequently seeks to deny the right of anyone to impose their will on others or to use force to silence political debate. In On Liberty he says:

“The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty and actions of any of their number, is self-protection.”

And later:

“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.”

And Mill offers no comfort to Conservatives who were, in his opinion, “by the law of their existence the stupidest party”.

Mills belief in “liberty” as a prime value of civilised society was fundamentally tied to his support of freedom of expression and the vital nature of unrestricted political debate. No system of social organisation that limited free speech – even of those who hold false opinions or opinions shared by a tiny minoirities (even a minority of one) – could reach its full potential.

The idea of stopping up the sharing up of ideas by any means was an anathema to Mills. The idea that his words might have been used as an excuse for such bloody murder would have horrified him.

Breivik, it appears, belonged to far right groups and was racist. There is no comfort in Mill’s work for those seeking to justify such views. Mill was a fierce and eloquent opponent of slavery. In a response to Thomas Carlyle’s viciously prejudiced rant about the dreadful state of the West Indies following the freeing of slaves (in a letter that has become known as “The Negro Question” written in 1850) Mill dismissed, with a devastating precision, the notions of the white man’s genetic or cultural superiority to other races. Carlyle, Mill said, had committed:

“…the vulgar error of imputing every difference which he finds among human beings to an original difference of nature. As well might it be said, that of two trees, sprung from the same stock one cannot be taller than another but from greater vigor in the original seedling. Is nothing to be attributed to soil, nothing to climate, nothing to difference of exposure — has no storm swept over the one and not the other, no lightning scathed it, no beast browsed on it, no insects preyed on it, no passing stranger stript off its leaves or its bark? If the trees grew near together, may not the one which, by whatever accident, grew up first, have retarded the other’s development by its shade? Human beings are subject to an infinitely greater variety of accidents and external influences than trees, and have infinitely more operation in impairing the growth of one another; since those who begin by being strongest, have almost always hitherto used their strength to keep the others weak.”

And yet, for all Mill’s admirable qualities, one can find in his work passages that reflect his position as a privileged citizen of an imperial power and a writer who possessed many of the prejudices of his age. For Mill, as for so many of his contemporaries, the advantages of enlightenment European societies over indigenous cultures were obvious and the biases in his writing can be hard to ignore. But no sane reading of Mill’s work justifies violence or bigotry. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Mill did not believe that the superiority of enlightenment culture and the advantages of the great powers justified the enslavement of other peoples or the use of force by the powerful to compel others to do their will or share their beliefs. As Mill says in On Liberty: “I am not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilized.”

Mill’s philosophy has its limitations but he can also offer lessons for a modern, multi-cultural, society.

  • We can remember Mill’s belief in the necessity of including all parts of society in public debates and of the imperative of treating with respect all viewpoints.
  • We can remember, in dealing with the rights of minorities, that Mill was as concerned with the “tyranny of the majority” as he was with the tyranny of the powerful few.
  • We can remember that the limits of Mill’s conception of individual liberty were defined by maxim that they must do no harm to any other person.
  • We can remember that Mill was an egalitarian – an opponent of slavery, an advocate of women’s rights and, later in his life, a supporter of radical economic reform who espoused industrial democracy and equality of income.

Perhaps if Anders Behring Breivik had read more carefully, and understood more fully, the work of the man he quoted so carelessly, he might have been persuaded to think again about the terrible acts he committed and, perhaps, much suffering would have been avoided.

My thoughts are with those who have lost their loved ones to Breivik’s murderous acts. This is one of those moments when I wish I still believed in God so I could offer sincere prayers for the souls of those who were killed.

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2 Responses to JOHN STUART MILL AND THE HORROR IN NORWAY

  1. admin says:

    It has been brought to my attention that Breivik got the Mill quote wrong – perhaps deliberately. The exact quote from Mill’s Considerations on Representative Government is: “One person with a belief, is a social power equal to ninety-nine who have only interests” – the misrepresentation and the exaggeration are probably telling, but I have no desire to analyse them.

  2. Zdenek Matejka says:

    Thank you. This is the exact meaning of JSM philosophy. I like specially one quote of this great philosopher… Mill offers no comfort to Conservatives who were, in his opinion, “by the law of their existence the stupidest party”. ZM