Mill, Havel, and Kundera all point us to a terrible truth: our moral weakness, desire to evade responsibility, and illusion that the majority makes right have led us down the slippery slope of forfeiting our freedom. How do we respond to those working to undermine human rights? The solution is simple, but not without personal costs. Stop lying, stop degrading yourself, stop pretending to believe what you don’t, and resign from the role as an enabler of tyranny.
In Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a Czech refugee living in Paris joins a protest march against the 1968 Soviet invasion of her homeland. To her surprise, the refugee could not bring herself to shout with the other protesters and soon left the rally. Her French friends didn’t understand her reluctance. The refugee silently mused that her friends could never understand that “behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.”
Beware of groups marching in lockstep, even for a seemingly good cause, Kundera warns.
In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill pointed us in a similar direction when he observed a tyranny as terrible as any imposed by “public authorities.” Mill called it the “tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling.”
Mill described “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.” Mill counseled, “individual independence” protected from “encroachment” from the tyranny of the majority “is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.”
The tyranny of societal mandates, Mill warned, can be “more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, … it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”
On Liberty was published in 1859. Sadly, the tendency Mill described is all-too-common among individuals living in 2023 who believe “their feelings… are better than reasons, and render reasons unnecessary.”
Often such “feelings” are based on the prevailing orthodoxy disseminated by The New York Times, NPR, and other such media outlets.
Worse, feelings-driven individuals up the ante and demand others conform. Mill explained, “The practical principle which guides them to their opinions on the regulation of human conduct, is the feeling in each person’s mind that everybody should be required to act as he, and those with whom he sympathises, would like them to act.”
Others may share your feelings and preferences. Yet, Mill reasoned, even when shared, individual preferences are not elevated to a guide for living for others:
No one, indeed, acknowledges to himself that his standard of judgment is his own liking; but an opinion on a point of conduct, not supported by reasons, can only count as one person’s preference; and if the reasons, when given, are a mere appeal to a similar preference felt by other people, it is still only many people’s liking instead of one.
Here is Mill’s bottom line: “[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Your feelings, your opinions, your sense of what is good for you, your sense of what will make you happier “is not a sufficient warrant” to interfere with the individual sovereignty of any one else.