Tag Archives: On Liberty

You just don’t get it!

John Stuart Mill says this

…the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.  No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this mode; nor is it in the nature of human intellectual to become wise in any other manner.  (On Liberty)

"Oh, that’s no fun," I thought.  

Isn’t it more fun to go with our first inclination?  And stick to it.  Especially when people disagree.  When people don’t like our ideas, I have a suggestion.  Shout:

You just don’t get it!

And then shout at them until they do…get it.  Easy peazy, as the English say.

And that’s why I am thinking about this, I guess. I was in England for a week.  (The Boot camp in London, thanks to Mark Earls and an enthusiastic group attending, was a smash hit I am happy to say.)  I can’t help feeling there is a clear split between points of view.  

I was watching the Sky coverage of Israeli boarding of the flotilla. An interview of protesters in the street in London and some guy grabbed the camera to announce, "Sky has real problems and if you are watching this, you are probably a wanker."  There was something about the finality with which he said it that struck me.  He knew that Sky viewers "just didn’t get it."

A couple of years ago I was doing research with a guy in Germany.  He lived modestly but his sister was a big sneeze.  When she came to visit, she left her Mercedes park near his apartment, he was utterly surprised when it got well and thoroughly keyed.  There was something about his utter lack of surprise that struck me.  He knew his sister just didn’t get it.

Class warfare.  It’s a real deal here.  Part of me wants to go with my most natural ideological and emotional reactions.  But that’s not what we do.  Our job, and what a tedious job it is, is to see both sides of the picture.  We need to exhibit the mobility, the lability, of a Russian novelist.  

Like I need European inspiration.  American politics descended into "you just don’t get it" some time ago.  I can’t remember the last time I saw someone rub their chin and say, "hmm, I hadn’t thought of that.  That’s interesting."  God knows, I never say it.  I’m too busy shouting, "You just don’t get it."  

There are two possibilities here, anthropologically speaking.  

First, we have lost our Millian gift for a thoughtful examination of the issues.  We are in love with the theater of being totally right all the time.  We are addicted to emotional outrage.  We don’t care there are deeper issues.  When it comes to politics, we are all now divas.  Give us the big gesture.  Give us the sweeping condemnation.  Or leave us out of it.  Politics might once have been a game for sober souls.  Now its for emotional show offs.

Second, the cultural world has widened.  If we were to do a geographic mapping of the ideological space, we would discover that it has expanded.  So much so that it is now vastly larger than it was in the Mill’s England.  In this case, the outrage is entirely justified.  We live in a larger world, where the differences really are more different.  When the world of politics expanded, its tensility would not hold.  Ground opened up.  The consensus tore.  

Probably both are true.  And if they are both true, what then?  How do we put Humpty Dumpty back together again?


To Katherine Bell for listening to an incoherent early statement of this argument.