Sunday, June 29, 2014

An addendum to my earlier post about opinions and legislation

Yesterday I wrote a piece about respecting opinions. I think that it is unclear whether opinions and legislation are the same thing and when opinions cross over towards legislation they may no longer warrant the same respect. I am reasonably confident that everyone believes this to some degree and any disagreement is just a matter of  degree rather than principle.

For example, if Congress passed a law criminalizing privately owned newspapers because the stories written about them hurt their feelings, I doubt, though I could be wrong, that most people would simply respectfully agree to disagree with them. My prediction is that their would be mass protests, likely some name calling, and general "rude" behavior occurring. And I do not see anything wrong with that. Shutting down privately owned newspapers is a big deal and politicians who would do that (and actually do that in some places) deserve all the scorn heaped upon them.

I use this as an example because I feel the same way about flag burning as many people do about criminalizing privately owned newspapers. Others may not feel as strongly as I do about people having the right to burn an American flag if they wish, but if they agree with me about the newspaper story we are only talking about a matter of degree, not principle. I think free speech is free speech, no matter how mundane the topic or offensive the speech.

That being said, I would like to reiterate that I enjoy a good debate about ideas and I think people should respect other people's opinions in so far as they remain opinions. When does an opinion cross that line? That is a difficult question and I am not sure that there is an indicator that can be used in all situations. But some opinions, like banning newspapers, probably deserve to be shouted down.

John Stuart Mill has a good passage in On Liberty that I think is appropriate for this discussion:

"...the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise." (my italics)

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