A defense of freedom of discussion can only be made by exploring its very real limits. This is something that Mill himself suggests in On Liberty. Paradoxically, to exercise freedom of opinion, we must have freedom from the “tyranny of opinion.” In fact, Mill tells us, government censorship should not be our primary concern. Social coercion is far more effective at producing conformity and stifling genuine discussion. Where government censorship actually preserves hidden pockets of dissident opinion but driving it underground, social coercion produces a more general climate of fear of ostracism and loss of reputation (not to mention loss of employment, harassment, and other elements we today associate with “cancel culture”)
But it can be very difficult to separate social coercion from the normative implications of expressing opinions at all. To express a view on what is ethical and just inevitably implies something about the ethics of those who hold the opposing view. Meanwhile social coercion is an inevitable part of daily life: I can’t just say anything around others and expect them to remain my friends or employers. If discussion is really free, then it seems people will be free to express the harsh condemnations that are building blocks of the “tyranny of opinion.”
That contradiction can only be solved only by making distinctions between different speech acts and discursive contexts. Where social coercion is illegitimate, it is because contexts have been collapsed (something abetted by social media), and speech acts misconstrued because interlocutors use wildly permissive interpretive frames that ignore basic linguistic pragmatics (including the intent of interlocutors). Theoretical contexts—what I call “contexts of inquiry”—in which freedom of discussion and truth-seeking ought to reign, are conflated with what I call “contexts of offense,” everyday social contexts in which we engage in a great deal of self-censorship to avoid upsetting others. Illiberal interpretive frames allow us to ....
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