Why I'll Always Have a Soft Spot for John Stuart Mill

Warning: this post is mushy 

A few weeks ago I was looking through some old documents and came across a few quotes from John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, Chapter II: On the Liberty of Thought & Discussion, that I had tracked down and copied from Wikiquote. On a whim, I took a screenshot and tweeted them:

Although I'm not ashamed of my follower count (*cough* 533) I'm not exactly a twitter celebrity, and 17 retweets made this my best performing tweet by far. 

I remember the first time I read these words very clearly: it was at 6:00 AM in Brunswick, Maine, on Sunday morning of the 23rd annual Red Tide Clambake Ultimate Frisbee Tournament. For those of you unfamiliar with American Ultimate, Clambake is perhaps the most respected non-beach party tournament held west of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon line. To attend the tournament, you must make a substantial donation to the tournament charity, or promise to contribute in some substantial way to the massive barn shindig held Saturday night after the first day of play. For example, a team might promise to provide 5 Kegs for the bar, make clam chowder for 400 people, or, as the Harvard men's team does every year, serve breakfast the following morning dressed as women.

The party was great, but late October in Maine is freezing, and even my inebriation blanket couldn't keep the chill out of the tents we had pitched in the fields by the Barn. So after a few fitful hours of sleep I grabbed the only reading material I had with me, homework, of course, to read by the coals of last night's bonfire in the streaky pale light of the frost-covered New England dawn.

In On Liberty John Stuart Mill says a lot of things, and I disagree with many of the things he says. But his words on truth are some of the most beautiful and most inspiring that I have ever read. To me, John Stuart Mill painted truth not as a parade of genius, or as an ever-expanding list of proofs punctuated neatly by "QEDs," but as something messy and collaborative, a collective blind zig-zag towards an unknown and possibly unfixed mark.

I worry that members of my generation are often too afraid to question established truths, too afraid to voice their own opinions, or, most frequently of all, too uncertain of their own competence to form an opinion in the first place. In short, I worry that we are too afraid of being wrong to try to be more right. What I didn't know, until I took to twitter, was that a lot of people feel the same way - at least partly.

On this blog I don't go out of my way to be wrong, but I do try to make a point, and that usually means that I'm wrong in some way in every post. I have realized that this may get me in trouble one day. I have not yet taken anything down, although that day soon may come. I believe, however, that the alternative is worse; that to study and work carefully within the lines, without taking risks, without challenging ideas or proposing ideas to be challenged, will get us no closer to truth and may in fact perpetuate untruths. But I'm not sure. I may be wrong.

I wasn't able to read for long before some other cold and sleepless soul came over and cracked a beer. We chatted for a bit about the pros and cons of permafrosting (ok ok, we were not actually that slang savvy), and then the Harvard men's team called us in for breakfast.

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