On liberty and debate 1

April 14, 2006

Whatever the merits of the arguments generated by the Frank Ellis affair, it is ironic that A. C. Grayling should have enlisted John Stuart Mill in support of those on just one side of the controversy (Features, April 7).

As Grayling observes, it was Mill's view that unless an opinion is "vigorously and earnestly contested" it is likely to degenerate into "dead dogma"; to become "inefficacious for good". The irony lies in the way Grayling cites Mill so uncritically. He doesn't seem to have noticed that, by so doing, he demonstrates the extent to which Mill's own argument has suffered the fate it warns us against.

Grayling maintains that those who hold opinions that are, "unjust" and "provocative... of discord" are still "entitled to voice these... on the basis... of free speech". Suppose that someone were to mount an anti-Grayling campaign, pronouncing that he is a man of low intelligence and dubious personal hygiene. Would Grayling support the right to mount such a campaign?

Mill says that it is often the case that conflicting opinions "share the truth between them", neither being "the whole truth" but each being "a part of the truth". If Mill is right, then the same rule must apply to Grayling's one-sided support for free speech as well as to his one-sided interpretation of Mill's argument.

Alan Haworth
London Metropolitan University

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