I confess: I’m addicted to the battlefield that is the Facebook comments section. Maybe I need to go see a psychiatrist, but the moment I discover a comment thread where two wildly different ideas clash, my interest is immediately piqued. I even enjoy a healthy dose of schadenfreude whenever a conversation devolves into personal attacks.

You know the type of post. Someone posts something about the president or anything else mildly controversial and you expand the comment thread underneath only to find a bazillion comments between two people, starting off (hopefully) civil and ending with insults that suggest anyone reading “under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian”.

Threads on the ReasonablEconomics page have gotten awfully close to this…

Some of you (okay, maybe most of you) are probably tired of these battles and wish that you could just silence others by blocking them. But I don’t think you should in most cases –John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty has convinced me of that.

As Mill says:

“When there are persons to be found, who form an exception to the apparent unanimity of the world on any subject, even if the world is in the right, it is always probable that dissentients have something worth hearing to say for themselves, and the truth would lose something by their silence.”

This feels like a hard position to take. Right now you’re thinking of crazy uncle Steve and want to tell me (and Mill!) “Listen. You have no idea. I know this guy who’s a total nutjob. Nothing he says has value. The world would be better without his ramblings on how the government is hiding the cryogenically frozen bodies of U.S. presidents underneath the Lincoln Memorial.”

While ReasonablEconomics has no official stance on the presence or whereabouts of the FDRefrigeration unit, it is likely that even crazy Uncle Steve has a valuable nugget and perspective on the truth hidden in his mad ramblings. Cutting it out of the public discourse would be detrimental. Maybe his viewpoints add value in that they offer the idea that the government might, indeed, hide things from us. Perhaps Uncle Steve’s ranting against the government makes us more likely to be cautious of some other (much less crazy) government program, like the National Security Agency, whose sole mission is the mass collection of people’s data through cell phones.

It’s fun to hit the extreme cases, both because they’re usually brought up as strawman arguments against Mill (and I get to write about crazy scenarios). However, many of Mill’s ideas were against the grain in his time. He supported women’s rights, he opposed slavery, and he observed the detrimental effect of industrial growth on the environment.

However, Mill was also a Malthusian, which basically means he thought we needed to control the population or else we would all end up poor and starving due to overpopulation. He was wrong on this for many reasons, which I’ll leave to the angry Facebook comments to explain. But actually, this is the perfect instance to apply Mill’s framework to his own ideas! If we were to silence his views on population control, we would miss out on the very valid point that industrial growth harms the environment. We would miss out on the discussion on whether the economic growth we enjoy from this outweighs the environmental damage, and ultimately end up losing a piece of the truth.

I feel it’s necessary, at least for my conscience, to add a caveat here regarding Facebook argument threads. If the discourse becomes too nasty and begins to affect your mental health, I wholeheartedly support you distancing yourself from that situation. If someone is hounding your every post and ends up arguing in the form of personal attacks, keeping that person in your life probably won’t lead to a better understanding of the truth.

220px-john_stuart_mill_by_london_stereoscopic_company2c_c1870However, there is a lot at stake here if we get in the habit of silencing people we disagree with. Not only do we miss out on the kernels of truth, but we overlook and inevitably diminish our individuality. As Mill says,  “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

It’s hard to say if my view of Facebook comment threads is heroic or just naive,  but I genuinely hope that people will not abandon avenues to explore ideas different from their own. Who knows, we may both find ourselves lurking in the same heated thread, debating which duck should be the state duck of Arkansas. (What a petty argument, you say? Not to us wood duck supporters! The mallard is obviously a bad choice, they just pass through on the way to Canada without even paying any taxes! However, I welcome anyone who wants to tell me otherwise).

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