Editor’s note: The following excerpt is abridged from Chapter One of The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism by Russell Blackford (Bloomsbury Academic, October 18 2018, 240 pages).
I’m afraid. Like many people, I’m afraid to speak up and say exactly what I think. I’m afraid to contribute to public debate with total frankness. I’m more afraid of my allies than I am of opponents, since the latter can do me less harm (though if they’re so minded they can probably do enough!). I’m not afraid of my closest friends, the people who love me, who have my back and will keep my secrets, but it gets more frightening as soon as I step out into wider circles of colleagues and acquaintances.
I come from a working-class family, and I grew up in an industrial city in Australia that was dominated at the time by its steelworks. I’m the first person from my family ever to attend university. I still have those connections, and I’ve inherited some blue-collar, trade-union values. But my social circle is one of mainly left-wing (to varying extents) academics, authors, journalists, lawyers, and artists. This has become my tribe, or the nearest thing to one. We dislike Rupert Murdoch and President Donald Trump. We’re afraid of right-wing populism, and we deeply fear its fringes of outright fascism.
All too often, though, we’re also afraid of each other.
There is much to say about right-wing threats to liberty and sound government, but much has been written about these in the past, including by me. On this occasion, I’m more concerned that my own tribe get its house in order. It’s disappointing when self-styled liberals narrow options, distort important debates, threaten individual freedoms, require that we walk on eggshells in our private and public speech, and generally operate in a censorious and illiberal mode. There’s been too much of this, and it’s not even helpful in struggles against our real political enemies. Today, we need to guard against our own large and small Outrage Machines. Otherwise, we can be shunned, harassed, dog-piled, smeared, publicly shamed, and otherwise hurt and harmed for trivial, dubious, or non-existent transgressions. Our good reputations can be destroyed, our jobs can be threatened or ended, and our careers can be ruined. This is not liberalism in any worthwhile sense.
I am writing from the side of freedom. I’m writing to support nonconformists. I’m writing for the world’s heretics, eccentrics, truth-tellers, artists, and jokers. The Tyranny of Opinion introduces some of them—figures as diverse as Philipp Jenninger, Salman Rushdie, Napoleon Chagnon, J. Michael Bailey, Wendy Doniger, Alice Dreger, Justine Sacco, Tim Hunt, Erika Christakis, and others less sympathetic than those I’ve just named. I am writing against anyone who’d crush them, even with good intentions.
Like John Stuart Mill in his classic text On Liberty (originally published 1859), I am not concerned only about governmental threats to liberty and related values. Those threats are, of course, serious. The organized power of the modern state is vast and conspicuous. It merits vigilance for its grave potential to restrict our liberties. But even more dangerous, perhaps, and certainly more difficult to understand or restrain, is a less overt, more insidious kind of tyranny: what Mill called “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling.” As Mill knew and explained, this can be more intrusive, pervasive, and effective than state power, even though the punishments it exacts are usually less devastating than those available to the state.
In the upshot, I’m less absolutist than some about our negative rights, as individuals, against the state. But I’m more alert than most to the tyranny of opinion, whether that of the public as a whole or that of any powerful individual, institution, or group that demands conformity.
In The Tyranny of Opinion, I don’t claim to reveal any simply expressed moral and political laws that must, at all costs, never be broken. Even in elaborating considerations adduced by Mill and others—considerations that appear suitably powerful—I acknowledge that different considerations might prevail in particular cases. This creates a risk for my project, since I could introduce so many layers, complexities, nuances, and exceptions that the arguments would have no clear practical implications. But at the same time, I have a fear that is almost the opposite.
Under current social conditions, even the most layered and qualified opinions can be distorted, misrepresented, over-simplified, exaggerated, and generally treated as those of enemies whose voices must be shut down. As a result, it can be foolhardy to explain whatever complexities we honestly perceive, rather than to express a simplistic view tailored to please an audience. Complexity seldom pleases others, yet it’s indispensable for serious understanding.
There’s little I can do about this. In The Tyranny of Opinion, I write as honestly and as clearly as I can, and as the complexities permit; and I ask, in turn, for honest attention to what is being said. I try to use a minimum of jargon, even when explaining difficult ideas, and to state my actual positions as correctly I can. I can’t promise to write something simple, or to have all the answers to thorny contemporary problems. Nonetheless, I think the book and its arguments have implications. If they’re taken to heart, some behavior will change. Perhaps even mine, dear reader. Perhaps even yours.
Russell Blackford is Conjoint Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Newcastle, NSW, and is the author or editor of numerous books including The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism, which now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @Metamagician.