I'm trying to listen to both sides of this issue to get a better understanding. If this question could be better worded to be more helpful, please help me out.

As I understand it one of the thinkers on whom the current society and system of Government of the UK, Canada, USA, New Zealand and Australia is based is John Stuart Mill.

He writes in his treatise On Liberty in Chapter 2:

First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. Its condemnation may be allowed to rest on this common argument, not the worse for being common.

(with many arguments continuing).

The argument in Chapter 2 has been summarised as:

In Chapter 2, Mill turns to the issue of whether people, either through their government or on their own, should be allowed to coerce or limit anyone else's expression of opinion. Mill emphatically says that such actions are illegitimate. Even if only one person held a particular opinion, mankind would not be justified in silencing him. Silencing these opinions, Mill says, is wrong because it robs "the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation." In particular, it robs those who disagree with these silenced opinions.

Mill then turns to the reasons why humanity is hurt by silencing opinions. His first argument is that the suppressed opinion may be true. He writes that since human beings are not infallible, they have no authority to decide an issue for all people, and to keep others from coming up with their own judgments. Mill asserts that the reason why liberty of opinion is so often in danger is that in practice people tend to be confident in their own rightness, and excluding that, in the infallibility of the world they come in contact with. Mill contends that such confidence is not justified, and that all people are hurt by silencing potentially true ideas.

One of the policies being increasingly used is the act of No-Platforming. This has been applied to thought leaders like Germaine Greer and Dawkins. This is defended as a policy of the NUS in the UK.

Looking at this for a moment, there are plenty of incidents where people are genuinely hurt by hateful speech. Indeed the assumption of free speech (in the US) has a list of limitations.

Keeping all these assumptions in mind, it appears the proponents of no-platforming are going against what John Stuart Mill intended. He reasons that we need to be able to hear 'dangerous ideas'. (Because as John Stuart Mill argued, these ideas might be right).

The question behind my question is "Why can't people just listen to each other?" but I'll stick to one clear question.

My question is: How do New Left proponents of No Platforming answer John Stuart Mill's claim that all silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility?

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    Before you answer this question: Note that a proper answer to this question should be based on quotes from notable new left proponents. Please do not post answers which just state your personal opinion on the matter.
    – Philipp
    Aug 9, 2017 at 10:47
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    seems to be related (but not an answer): en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradox_of_tolerance Note that Mills lived well before Fascism and Nazism, plus, by his own argument, he could have missed something and he might be wrong.
    – Federico
    Aug 9, 2017 at 11:38
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    A bit circular, but it seems to me that those advocating silencing alternative viewpoints often have a firm belief in their own infallibility, at least of the moral variety. I'd suspect that you wouldn't get a coherent, thoughtful response consistent with Mills because giving that kind of consideration to that perspective would probably preclude the desire for silencing opposing voices. Aug 9, 2017 at 16:13

1 Answer 1


I don't think that you will get many - or any - direct references to this specific idea of Mill from prominent proponents of a no platform policy (it's just too specific).

One proponent did write a response to the larger point of standing contrary to Mills positions in general on Huffington Post though:

Of all people, John Stuart Mill is frequently and somewhat ironically brought up in defense of completely unrestricted freedom of expression. Those who invoke his name have clearly not read what he actually thought. Indeed, it is precisely Mill's reasoning which has informed my worldview. In writing about liberty, Mill also seeks to protect it. [...]

Mill classifies that speech acts have the potential to do harm - and thus must be restricted in certain cases. As he writes slightly earlier:

'An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer.'

Mill notes it is perfectly reasonable to hold a specific opinion - even if one may find it to be disagreeable. What is not tolerated is the individual's freedom to say what they like, wherever they like, and whenever they like.

As to the specific claim about assumption of infallibility:

You can see the NUS No Platform Policy online. It doesn't make an argument about infallibility, and it is not actually about the correctness or incorrectness of opinions or arguments at all; it is about protecting vulnerable individuals:

[It] is there to enfranchise freedom of speech and keep students safe [...]

Students’ unions are private bodies, and have a right to refuse individuals and groups who threaten the safe environment students’ unions provide for their members [...]

NUS supports freedom of speech, thought and expression. But NUS opposes those who attempt to utilise this freedom in order to remove freedoms of others. Affording racists and fascists a platform helps them in their search for credibility to promote their message of hate, which in turn can lead to violence against those that they target.

So if for example someone wanted to hold a talk about the idea that Jews are secretly destroying a country and must be killed to be stopped, there is no need to debate this, as it is irrelevant if this is true or not. By giving a platform to this idea, it can - even if wrong, as is the case in this example - convince some, which can in turn lead to violence against individuals.

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    The only reservation I have about the points made is, yes, there are extreme, beyond the pale viewpoints that are toxic and don't deserve an assumption of "difference of opinion." The problem is the contortions people will go through to try and frame any disagreement as being in that same vein. As a liberal, it's very disheartening to see those claiming to be liberal trying to stifle any opposing voices instead of engaging those viewpoints head-on. Aug 9, 2017 at 16:16
  • @PoloHoleSet There are different issues that are labeled "no platform" that are often not distinguished. If you take Dawkins disinvitation from a private conference as example, Novella makes this argument: "People have a right to speech, but they don’t have a right to access a private venue for their speech. In fact, whom we invite or uninvite to our conference is the primary mechanism of our free speech. This was ultimately about the character of NECSS and the statement we wish to make (or not make) to our community."
    – tim
    Aug 9, 2017 at 17:08
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    I think Yiannopoulos tries to provoke those kinds of reactions and intentionally crosses certain lines so he claim status as a victim of the "intolerant, PC left." He's not interested in sharing ideas as much as trolling. That dis-invitation is due to specific, hostile actions against people when he was supposed to be discussing ideas. I'm talking more about general shouting down or silencing of people with conservative ideas who are actually there to try and present their views, and not just get into a crap-flinging match. Aug 9, 2017 at 18:08
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    @user4012 - ...... which is my point that Yiannopoulous is more of an outlier and his treatment was really not directly applicable to the behavior I was expressing disappointment in, and therefore not really a rebuttal. So, yes, I think we do agree on this. We should not pretend that the right is any kind of paragon of tolerance, either, but they don't claim to be the voices of tolerance, so the standard and expectations are much lower, as is the hypocrisy factor. Even if the level of tolerance could somehow be measured as "equal," it reflects worse upon liberals. Aug 10, 2017 at 13:19
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    @PoloHoleSet - the "right" (at the very least, US republicans/conservatives) haven't ever tried to shut anyone up, as a large scale social force, in living memory (I can probably buy McCarthy era as equivalent; even though there are major qualitative differences - there actually WERE communist agents of KGB working to destroy USA, as later soviet archive openings proven conclusively). Even the most infamous episodes were literally ONLY about taxpayer money not being used, e.g. Chris Ofili case or public funding of arts.
    – user4012
    Aug 10, 2017 at 14:35

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