In On Liberty Mill is not only concerned with freedom from government interference, from legislation and prohibition. Just as important is the freedom to develop culturally and intellectually, to become the type of autonomous and original individual that Mill admired. He feared that this freedom was under threat, that:
… the inevitable growth of social equality and of the government of public opinion, should impose on mankind an oppressive yoke of uniformity in opinion and practice. Autobiography ch.7
The greatest impediment to human progress is, borrowing a phrase from de Tocqueville, the ‘tyranny of the majority’:
… in political speculations “the tyranny of the majority” is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard. 1.4
The concept is closely linked to the growth of democracy. In earlier times, power resided with a governing tribe or caste who ruled in their own interests, and not in the interests of the people. This separation was gradually overcome with the rise of representative government: the rulers were elected to represent the people’s interests. However, as democracy established itself it became clear that a new separation of interests was emerging:
… not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority: the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other abuse of power. 1.4
With the growth of democracy and the rise of mass communication – a phenomenon more observable in our own time even than Mill’s – popular opinion has achieved significant political influence. Checks and balances may be put in place to prevent the majority from using the law to stifle the minority; but Mill’s fear is that the majority will instead use the forum of public opinion:
… a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. 1.5
This is not an idle fear. Prevailing attitudes to different religious or cultural attitudes hold great sway in our own time. People are quick to take offence and eager to express that offence through social media, and when those attitudes are endorsed by the press then the tyranny of opinion becomes a measurable force.
Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. 1.5
The Despotism of Custom
Prevailing attitudes quickly become entrenched and appear to carry the weight of authority, when in fact they are entirely contingent and based on very little reason or evidence.
The rules which obtain among themselves appear to them self-evident and self-justifying. This all but universal illusion is one of the examples of the magical influence of custom… 1.6
This would perhaps be less of a concern if there was a genuine desire for individuality – but this is not the case. People tend to be at best indifferent to, and at worst suspicious of, spontaneity and independence: they do not understand why their ways should not be good enough for everyone. In such an atmosphere there is likely to be less original thought and less opportunity for individual genius. Mill calls this the ‘despotism of custom’ (3.17) and considers it an enemy of freedom and progress. He uses the Far East as an example, describing China as a once great civilisation that fell under the sway of custom and stagnated culturally. Modern Europe, he claims, is also under threat but in a different way:
We have discarded the fixed costumes of our forefathers; every one must still dress like other people, but the fashion may change once or twice a year. 3.17
This wry observation identifies the key difference: Europe is not opposed to progress per se, merely to individuality. Change is good as long as we all change together. But even the possibility of progress is rapidly diminishing in an age of global homogeneity:
… they now read the same things, listen to the same things, see the same things, go to the same places, have their hopes and fears directed to the same objects, have the same rights and liberties, and the same means of asserting them. 3.18
The result of this assimilation is a failure to think and act as an individual, and to take as authority what is merely custom. Mill quotes a contemporary author who spoke of ‘the deep slumber of a decided opinion’ (2.30) and identifies these decided opinions as a threat to freedom:
… it is the opinions men entertain, and the feelings they cherish, respecting those who disown the beliefs they deem important, which makes this country not a place of mental freedom. 2.19
Mill believes that the public are not willing to be challenged in their inherited beliefs and instead exercise their disapproval to keep those challenges quiet. The result of this is that great and original minds are forced to hide their beliefs so as not to ruffle feathers, and society stagnates because prevailing opinions stifle any innovation.
Of course, this does not have to be the case. At certain times in history people have been allowed to think freely and the results have been remarkable: Mill cites the Reformation and the French Enlightenment as examples. But it does seem to be true of Mill’s time – and perhaps our own:
In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, every one lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship. 3.6
People no longer live their lives according to their own values. They do not ask what they prefer, or what best suits them; instead they ask, what is everybody else doing? how am I meant to behave?
I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary. Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke… 3.6
This, of course, is why the tyranny of the majority is of such concern to Mill. His understanding of the good life combines elements of happiness and social progress, both of which are lessened by the triumph of custom.
Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress. 3.1
In place of this progress, society collapses into a ‘collective mediocrity’ (3.13), and people – instead of developing into original and imaginative individuals – are belittled by their conformity to social norms.
One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character. 3.5
Mill’s tone becomes impassioned when he addresses the collective mediocrity of modern society. He deplores:
… the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character. 3.11
– and the stigma that attaches to true individuals:
But the man, and still more the woman, who can be accused either of doing “what nobody does,” or of not doing “what everybody does,” is the subject of as much depreciatory remark as if he or she had committed some grave moral delinquency. 3.14
He warns against middle-class conformity as a threat to human progress:
… society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences. 3.6
– and the gradual establishment of an ‘approved standard’ of human behaviour:
… that standard, express or tacit, is to desire nothing strongly. Its ideal of character is to be without any marked character; to maim by compression, like a Chinese lady’s foot, every part of human nature which stands out prominently, and tends to make the person markedly dissimilar in outline to commonplace humanity. 3.15
The tyranny of the majority represents the most important threat to ‘the permanent interests of man as a progressive being’. Genius is not recognised, individuality is not tolerated and society as a whole is condemned to a bland and idle mediocrity.
Of course, not everyone saw things that way. Many of Mill’s contemporaries found it odd that he was so concerned with the decline of individualism. Some saw the lack of diversity as a good thing; an end to tribalism, provincialism and sectarian squabbles. Others recognised the effect of social convention and the conformity it imposes, but found it a small price to pay for the larger rights of speech, action, assembly and so forth that are guaranteed by law. More communitarian thinkers insisted that custom and culture were essential to our identity and that we could not define ourselves outside of the practices of our community. And some were merely baffled, citing the self-evident and widespread eccentricity that has long been a hallmark of Englishness – as Lord Macaulay put it, Mill was ‘really crying Fire! in Noah’s flood’.
- Berlin, Isaiah. Two Concepts of Liberty. 1958
- Mill, John Stuart (ed. Himmelfarb). On Liberty. Penguin, 1985
- Mill, John Stuart. Autobiography
- Stephen, James Fitzjames. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity