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Freedom of speech Essay

Freedom of speech and the liberty to uphold one’s expression has long been the subject of many debates. It has taken centuries if not years for mankind to come to a point where many can easily voice their opinions without having to ponder over the consequences. But one should always know where to draw the line. Freedom of expression also needs to have its limits. Two of the masterminds who put forth their work on liberty and freedom of speech were John Stuart Mill and Jean-Jacque Rousseau. The concepts penned by Rousseau contradict those that were constructed by Mil; while the former focused on the functioning of the society as a whole, the latter advocated the rights of the individual to his freedom.

Mill basically argument in his piece ‘On Liberty’ allows for Utilitarian approach. His main idea was to give society and human nature a complete independence to mature and expand in infinite ways and direction. The main idea revolved around the kind of power that can be placed upon the individual by the society, and how that power was wrong unless exercised in self-defense. In particular, minorities were often the ones being oppressed. Mill pointed out that this tyrannical behavior was being supported by the major thinkers of that day. Public opinion followed the opinion of these thinkers and hence ended up doing the same. ‘On Liberty’ sought to diminish the power the society had over an individual’s freedom by giving that individual the freedom of speech. It was identified through the works that most people had precedent and preference which further provoked dissent and thus pressurized people. Mill also noted that there was no way of judging people on their interference into another person’s private affairs.

Mill’s idea of complete and total independence from society is contradicted in Rousseau’s works ‘The Social Contract,’ according to which man was restricted by the state and society that he existed in, once he became a part of the land he gave up the right to himself; society had a right upon the individual which he agrees to when he chooses to exist within a given society. This, he believed, was done for the greater good of the entire society; thereby his main focus was the society and not the individual, unlike Mill. For Rousseau, society itself was like a collective individual and that collective entity was sovereign and not a singular entity. He allowed for individuals having their own aims and goals, but asserted that the will of the collective paved way for the greater good. By this definition he gives the society the power to act for the greater good and confirms that authority as absolute. He even goes as far as to recommend the death penalty for anyone who goes against this norm.

Their ideas give us two different facets of life. Should one speak one’s mind or work for the greater good of the society?Mill believed in supporting diversity while condemning conformity by rejecting any form of manipulation that could be applied to a person’s opinion or behavior. It was the revolutionary author’s belief that liberty forms the basis of much of the social progress that takes place. Through ‘On Liberty,’ it is asserted that freedom of speech is important primarily because to begin with, the opinion which most find disdainful maybe the correct one. Secondly, even if one voices a direly disproportionate view, refuting it will only help strengthen the general understanding of the topic amongst the masses.

It was Mill’s belief that by continuously voicing thoughts, ideas and questions people kept society moving and defied stagnation. ‘The Social Contract,’ on the other hand goes onto state that the authority the ruler has over the state is like that of the father over his child. There is literally absolute control. Through Rousseau’s argument we are told that the mighty are the fittest to lead and decide what is best for the entire society. The wellbeing of the society depends on it functioning as one body, mind and soul. Each individual is part of the grand scheme which is built around the orders of the sovereign i.e. the rulers of the state.

Mill charted three categories of freedom and asserted that the society was to abide by all three, if it were a free society. The first was freedom of thought and opinion, the second being the right to plan one’s life and future and the third to associate with other individuals on mutual grounds. The main idea behind this was that one should be able to pursue their own whims without hurting others in the process. Rousseau also has three implications of the contract.

The first one being the fact that the conditions of the contract are same for everyone which is why everyone will collectively make it easier for everyone else to follow, secondly an individual cannot stand against the authority because he has given up that right because he is a part of the state, and lastly, there is completely equality ergo the natural freedom that people enjoy stays intact, regardless of the social contract. It was in the ‘Discourse of Inequality’ that Rousseau observed of inequality that the powerful has the choice between giving the masses an equal piece of the pie or letting the masses rot while they took everything for themselves. He was not an advocate of the powerful; he merely illustrated how the meek must always follow them because they have no other choice.

The problem with Rousseau’s approach is that it completely rejects the claim that minorities or small groups may have on the society. If the masses chose to, they can quite literally annihilate any small sects that they wish without as much as a blink of an eye. In this regard, we are forced to side with Mill’s argument. However, ‘On Liberty’ has its own faults because it focuses too much on the individual’s needs without paying much heed to the society. Mill believed that the only instance where any one person or the society itself was justified in interfering with someone’s freedom was for their own self-preservation. In this way Mill’s only restriction on liberty was when it ended up harming other people, for which he advocated restraint. He was against the idea that meddling in someone’s affair. Diversity was not something to be toyed with, but the right to liberty was to be treated with respect.

One has to also note that much of Mill’s work is at times vague on the limitations that can be placed on an individual. Another weak point is his extreme emphasis on the individual and not creating a balance between the individual and the society. While the individual was required to support the society he/she lived in, that by no means gave society any right to probe into their matters. As stated in the ‘Discourse of Inequality,’ “The difference between good and bad men is determined by public esteem… The rank of citizens ought, therefore, to be regulated, not according to their personal merit — for this would put it in the power of the magistrate to apply the law almost arbitrarily,” this shows that he believed that individuality would only hinder the laws that had been catered to the society as a whole. If each person was to be accounted for then the whole as Rousseau saw it, would come to a halt.

Both authors present two extreme ways of life. while one advocates complete and total freedom, albeit not at the expense of others, the other goes on to suggest that freedom is restricted only is what the choices someone more powerful has selected for the majority. For freedom of speech both arguments do not fit. There needs to be a balance between the two. One cannot allow complete and total freedom of speech because inadvertently, whether it was intended or not, an individual may end up harming the society he/she lives in. If everyone began to voice a million different point of views at the same time there wouldn’t be diversity, there would be chaos.

Similarly, if the entire society was to follow the whims of a few men and women then society will not be able to move on. New ideas would never develop; people would never gain knowledge because knowledge would itself become restricted. Someone needs to stop talking to allow for the silence that precedes another’s idea. History shows us that without speaking one’s mind, no real revolutions would have taken place, that being said, history also shows us how massive panic can sweep nations because of the freedom of speech that was given to the people. A balance between the two is needed. Social responsibility needs to be practiced with the freedom of speech; the two should be taken as a packaged deal and not separately.

Works Cited

Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’Rousseau’s ‘Discourse on Inequality’Mill’s ‘On Liberty’


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