Tyranny of the Majority

Tyranny of the regime, of the majority, or of society: liberty requires defense against all three.

…in political and philosophical theories, as well as in persons, success discloses faults and infirmities which failure might have concealed from observation. The notion, that the people have no need to limit their power over themselves, might seem axiomatic, when popular government was a thing only dreamed about, or read of as having existed at some distant period of the past….In time, however,…[it was] perceived that such phrases as “self-government,” and “the power of the people over themselves,” do not express the true state of the case. The “people” who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the “self-government” spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number;” and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power….”the tyranny of the majority” is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard. [John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, in Britannica  Great Books 43, pp. 268-9.]

A century and a half later, amid calls to blame all the world’s Muslims for the behavior of its extremists without any admission of the foundational role of our own extremists in the generation of theirs, it remains clear either than we have yet to learn this lesson or that we have forgotten it and need to learn it once again…hopefully without such bitter classes as were offered by the French Reign of Terror (during the rise of democracy) or the McCarran-McCarthy purges (during democracy’s supposed heyday).

This quest for a legal structure to protect all of us as individuals from the tyranny of the majority, however, is but the first step in an arduous journey yet to be completed, one suspects, by any large society of humans. Far more difficult to achieve because of its subtlety, and more threatening to 21st century democratic societies, is conformity (neatly termed “social tyranny” by Mill:

when society it itself the tyrant–society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it–its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does issue its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compels all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism. [ 269.]



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