Sam White:

Ultimately, shutting people down is a form of cowardice. If Milo’s detractors can’t combat his ideas with their own ideas, then we have to ask, what have Milo’s ideas got that theirs haven’t?

After all, if they’re so utterly confident that he’s wrong, so very certain to the point where they feel he shouldn’t even be published, then what do they have to fear? Why not let his ideas be exposed, and then show the world how faulty they are?

If their reasoning is sound, then it shouldn’t be difficult for them. After all, Apatow is totally convinced that his ideas are better, he has a public platform significantly larger than Milo’s, he’s more famous, richer, and he has more influence.

So I wonder, just what is it that he’s scared of?

This is true so far as it goes, which isn’t very. It’s like the man said in Cool Hand Luke: what we’ve got here is failure to communicate. The reason why we keep having these tedious arguments over free speech which go nowhere and convince no one is that the two sides are speaking different languages of value. For the sake of simplicity, we can say that they are just the mouthpieces channeling the echoes of an old argument between the ghosts of J.S. Mill and J.J. Rousseau. Mill’s vision of liberalism has long been on the wane. It is intellectually ascetic, making difficult, almost superhuman demands on our ability to coexist with heterodoxy. Rousseau’s vision has long been popular on the illberal far left. It is emotionally satisfying, tapping into deep wells of tribalist instinct.

Mill’s On Liberty is the exemplary statement of classical liberal values. People like White, or Kenan Malik, or Russell Blackford, are all speaking in his spirit when they oppose censorship in all its forms. Coercion, whether it comes from a tyrannical government or an intolerant mob, whether enforced through guns or petitions, is to be opposed above all else. (Mill takes this to a logical extreme that even most of his descendants might balk at today.) It is a procedurally-oriented outlook in which the means are what matter, not the ends. As long as the rules are understood clearly and enforced impartially, no one has the right to usurp your decision-making for you, to bully you into silence, to intimidate you into acquiescence. Milo is free to write a book; Simon and Schuster are free to publish it; you are free to buy a copy; I am free to spend my money on other things, and we’re all free to try to convince others to see things our way.

On the other hand, we have Rousseau and his concept of the general will. As Isaiah Berlin said about him:

In short, the problem goes somewhat as follows. You want to give people unlimited liberty because otherwise they cease to be men; and yet at the same time you want them to live according to the rules. If they can be made to love the rules, then they will want the rules, not so much because the rules are rules as because they love them. If your problem is how a man shall be at once free and yet in chains, you say: “What if the chains are not imposed upon him? What if the chains are not something with which he is bound as by some external force? What if the chains are something he chooses himself because such a choice is an expression of his nature, something he generates from within him as an inner ideal? If this is what he above all wants in the world, then the chains are no longer chains.”

…But if the chains are chains of your own making, if the chains are simply the rules which you forge, with your own inner reason, or because of the grace which pours in while you lead the simple life, or because of the voice of conscience or the voice of God or the voice of nature, which all are referred to by Rousseau as if they were almost the same thing; if the chains are simply rules the very obedience to which is the most free, the strongest, most spontaneous expression of your own inner nature, then the chains no longer bind you — since self control is not control. Self-control is freedom. In this way Rousseau gradually proceeds toward the peculiar idea that what is wanted is men who want to be connected with each other in the way in which the State forcibly connects them.

Consequently Rousseau develops the notion of the general will. It begins in the harmless notion of a contract, which after all is a semi-commercial affair, merely a kind of undertaking voluntarily entered into, and ultimately revocable also, an act performed by human beings who come together and agree to do certain things intended to lead to their common happiness; but still only an arrangement of convenience which, if it leads to common misery, they can abandon. This is how it begins; but from the notion of a social contract as a perfectly voluntary act on the part of individuals who remain individual and who pursue each his own good, Rousseau gradually moves towards the notion of the notion of the general will as almost the personified willing of a large super-personal entity, of something called “the State”, which is now no longer the crushing leviathan of Hobbes, but something more like a team, something like a Church, a unity in diversity, a greater-than-I, something in which I sink my personality only in order to find it again.

Starting from assumptions about the rational harmony of all seemingly-disparate truths, Rousseau creates the foundation of what would eventually be known as “false consciousness” — the idea that we, the enlightened, know what is is true and best for you. If you disagree with us, that’s not a matter of opinion deserving respect and tolerance. It’s a sign that you are either too stupid or confused to understand your own interests and how to rationally pursue them. Our answers are not mere differences of opinion or taste, they are practically scientific truths.

For Mill and his followers, freedom must include the freedom to choose badly and make mistakes. For Rousseau and his followers, allowing people to choose what we know to be a mistake is irrational and immoral. Therefore, if we have to “coerce” people, it’s not tyranny, because our “coercion” is in service to a higher truth, a more important freedom. Allowing someone like Milo a platform to spread his ideas is as irresponsible and delinquent as a parent allowing their toddler to wander in the street. This same patronizing attitude is what motivates their attempts to intimidate Simon and Schuster away from publishing the book — it’s not that we fear anything about Milo’s ideas, because we’re secure in the truth. It’s all those other people, those impressionable simpletons out there, whom we have to protect for their own good. Unfortunately, we can’t supervise all of them all of the time, so the next best thing is to make sure that dangerous materials don’t fall into their naïve hands.

How can Mill’s supporters convince Rousseau’s that they don’t have access to ultimate truth and therefore no right to threaten, intimidate, and coerce people into submission? How can Rousseau’s supporters convince Mill’s to accept that some ends should take priority over means? I suspect that if it were possible via argument, it would have happened by now.