In his great, though seriously flawed, plea for tolerance, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argues that the individual person should be free to do or say whatever he wants, provided he does no harm to others. If he would like to do things that harm himself, that’s okay. Just don’t harm others.
Then Mill lists three kinds of prohibited harm: bodily harm (e.g., breaking somebody’s leg), property harm (e.g., robbing a bank), and reputational harm (slander or libel). Being a thoroughly secular thinker, Mill doesn’t count moral or religious harm as harm. My bad example might lead another person to lose his soul and go to Hell, but Mill doesn’t recognize that as harm. Nor does it count as harm if a nation, because of its lack of prayer and fasting, provokes God to abandon it. Only tangible, evident, and this-worldly harms count.
What is odd about Mill’s list of harms is that it does not include emotional harm. Now the world abounds with persons who engage in emotional abuse, and who use that abuse and the threat of it to manipulate others. Think of the boyfriend who, though clearly abusing his girlfriend, never resorts to physical abuse. There are plenty of people like this today; there must have been as many or more in Mill’s day. Yet he doesn’t count hurt feelings as a kind of harm.
Why not? I believe there are at least two reasons. One is that hurt feelings are an inevitable accompaniment of certain practices that we highly value, and we are quite unwilling to abolish those practices in order to avoid hurt feelings. For instance, should we abolish athletic contests because the losers commonly have hurt feelings? Or abolish elections because it hurts to lose? Or abolish a free enterprise business system because it is painful to suffer business failure? (Some schools have abandoned spelling bees, however, because of the hurt feelings experienced by losers.)
The other reason has to do with objections to certain forms of social betterment that Mill was acquainted with in his day – objections, for instance, to equal rights for women (one of Mill’s great causes) or to the abolition of slavery and the equalization of blacks and whites in America. Many anti-reform conservatives said that the equalization of men and women or the equalization of blacks and whites just didn’t “feel” right.
The equality of men and women hurt the feelings of English conservatives, and the equality of blacks and whites hurt the feelings of pro-slavery American Southerners. The appeal to hurt feelings, Mill thought, was the last refuge of the conservative who had no good rational arguments to offer in support of his anti-progressive prejudices. And so the appeal to hurt feelings mustn’t be allowed.
Would that Mill were living at this hour! For the appeal to hurt feelings is flourishing today, more than a century and a half since Mill wrote his great book – but this time it is the refuge not of conservatives but of liberal-progressives, the very persons who claim to be heirs of Mill’s philosophy of progress and tolerance.
This fallacious appeal is running rampant on the campuses of many of America’s best (or should I write “best”?) colleges and universities. One mustn’t utter certain ideas or sentiments, because, it is held, these ideas and sentiments will cause hurt feelings among certain groups of students; for example, blacks, Latinos, feminists, gays, lesbians, transgenders, or Muslims.
It is no longer enough that you abstain from saying obviously racist things about blacks. No, you mustn’t say anything that can be construed as “subtly” racist or that reveals “unconscious” racism. You mustn’t, for example, make favorable references to Thomas Jefferson – something the president of the University of Virginia discovered the other day when certain students objected to her quoting Jefferson in a way that seemed to honor him.
For Jefferson, despite the fact that he was the founder of the University of Virginia and the further fact that he coined the famous phrase that carried obvious anti-slavery implications, “all men are created equal,” was a slave owner and gave it as his opinion, in his Notes on Virginia, that blacks are by nature intellectually inferior to whites. Thus Jefferson was a racist, and if you praise Jefferson your praise stinks of racism and you hurt the feelings of black students and their white liberal sympathizers. So shut up about Jefferson.
For years the “hurt feelings” appeal has been used very effectively by the gay rights movement. If you happen to believe that there is something morally objectionable about homosexual intercourse – perhaps because you’ve read the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, or perhaps because you agree with Pope Benedict XVI that there is something “intrinsically disordered” about same-sex attraction, or perhaps because you’re a Christian who agrees with the traditional Christian teaching about sexual relations, or perhaps because you’re an unfashionable psychologist who agrees with Freud and his doctrine that homosexuality is the result of psychosexual immaturity – well, you hurt the feelings of gays and lesbians and their liberal sympathizers. So shut up about homosexuality.
The “hurt feelings” argument has been used brilliantly by liberal-progressives to silence dissenters – and not just on college campuses but in newsrooms and in Hollywood, in other words, in all our leading American agencies of moral propaganda.
In the old days, the Catholic Church used the Inquisition to silence Galileo, but the “hurt feelings” device is much more effective than the Roman Inquisition ever was. At least the Inquisition gave Galileo a trial. Our liberal-progressives don’t bother going through a time-wasting trial. Say something that has the odor of heresy about it, and you will be condemned instantaneously.
An intellectual tyranny is stalking the land. And the enforcers of this tyranny are those who should be the first to resist it, those who claim (quite falsely) to be in the liberal tradition of John Stuart Mill.