Mill and Plato – Those Ideal Voices we all Need at the Family Dinner Table

by Tyson Brown

Family gatherings are a blessed opportunity to hear the diverse political opinions of all members of kin, which can quickly turn sour in the form of ferocious debates. For many young scholars, it is the highlight of the holiday season to watch their racist uncle spar with their socialist cousin over whatever the news cycle is forcing the population to digest. Consequentially, I have seen families divide over political opinions, cancel other members from the annual Christmas card send-out, and revoke invitations to get-togethers. The ultimate question remains: what is the solution to all of this division?

Fortunately, John Stuart Mill, the pioneering liberal theorist, has the answer. Although Mill wrote On Liberty in 1859, his work on liberty is a resounding contemporary reminder of humankind’s intellectual potential. Mill deduced that apathy for diverse opinions stifles critical thought and discourages an enlightened citizenry. Chuck that line out at your crazy aunt when she won’t get off your back about Facebook conspiracies. When she replies, “what does that even mean?” kindly inform her of Mill’s vision for a world founded on critical thought, where many opinions substantiate what society should deem good and truthful. Those who dissent should be encouraged to change their perspective through respectful deliberation; behold, everybody wins. 

Mill argues that the more diverse opinions on a contestable topic, the merrier. As a proponent of freedom of speech, he writes that “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is… robbing the human race… those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.”  But what does this mean? Imagine the dinner table again. Everyone may be in agreeance on a topic, except your stubborn relative who says otherwise. Suppose that stubborn relative is indeed correct. The family is too busy yelling above him to hear his argument. In that case, everyone at the table is robbing themselves of an opportunity to listen to a just perspective. If the relative is wrong, then the group should be able to kindly direct his attention towards what is just, which overturns his initial argument. At last, peace and quiet, as everyone agrees and can go back to the reason they’re there in the first place: enjoying their meal. 

Imagine the potential if all of society embraced this perspective. It’s no help that social media encourages confirmation bias in the opinions that are forced into users’ feeds. When they prepare for a discussion on contentious issues, these users are only loaded on one side of an argument, and robust debate is discouraged. Mill would frown upon our current intellectual paradigm; citizens are prevented from soaking in diverse opinions on topics. How incredible it would genuinely be if everyone encouraged each other to construct rational arguments and help one another find agreeance with contentious issues. 

Freedom of expression is a critical tool that many individuals overlook in its capability to produce an enlightened citizenry. “Expression” should not be substituted for “exclaiming”: engaging with your ideological adversaries in a shouting match is no way for either individual to learn anything. Express your opinion respectfully, with as much evidence as you have gathered to substantiate it. Plato exemplified this constructive concept in the Book One of The Republic, where Socrates, Plato’s mouthpiece, swiftly deconstructs his three friends’ definitions of what justice ought to be with ease. Socrates’ handling of the brash Thrasymachus and his firm reluctance to admit his defeat in Socrates having deconstructed his philosophy exemplifies precisely the point. Through a critical lens, one can argue that Thrasymachus embodies many Western individuals who feel it is more important to assert their opinion than seek to reinforce their argument or change their perspectives through good-spirited debate. One could argue that Plato implicitly used Thrasymachus to illustrate a similar point over two thousand years ago; it is harder to learn from one another with a self-righteous attitude and an unwillingness to be flexible in the breadth of your opinion. 

So what is to be done at the family gathering? If you brought forward any of these cases with the average family, you probably wouldn’t get very far. But intellectually, Mill and Socrates speak of the intellectual potential of humankind if people were only willing to release their grudges and approach politics and theories with an open mind. These are the critical keys to starting somewhere with those unchangeable relatives that get on your nerves. But what can you, reader, do to combat the constant amplification of the same opinions you are forced to tolerate annually? Remember that Mill tells us that those opinions are notable too; they all are. The craziest ones enable you to agree with yourself even more. Use them to teach yourself to distinguish between what is wrong and right. Gravitate to those individuals who are willing to engage in well-constructed debates and intelligent conversations. It will remove a great deal of unadded stress during family gatherings. And finally, let everyone have their say, no matter what. Because remember, dear reader, everyone in agreeance may be wrong against one voice of valid rational reason, and you may not even know it. No one benefits if you or anyone else stifles the voice of reason.

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