Skip to content

The Tyranny of the Many is (Perhaps) as Bad as the Tyranny of One

When we think of tyrants or dictators, I think many of us conjure up either Orwellian or, rather, Stalinist-type regimes; but as these are steadily disappearing from the world, we must watch for the other type of tyranny: the many-eyed beast that is growing in our backyard, feeding on our placidity within a comfortable existence. We should be turning toward its glare, listening for its approach, which is, given our current situation, an ever-growing concern.

When describing the growing dangers of public scrutiny, John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty that “in political speculations ‘the tyranny of the majority’ is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard.” Mill described it as follows:

“The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or 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.”

A society that forces its citizens to be shaped into the mould of whatever prevailing opinion thinks true or good, by virtue only and through the use of majority viewpoints, is as dangerous as any oppressive regime. Just because the weapon is prevailing opinion doesn’t mean it is any less oppressive of those who happen to dissent.  Instead of a powerful individual throttling the freedom of the many, it is now the many who, by virtue of number, become powerful enough to throttle the freedom of the individual.

The reason we ought to be on our guard, then, rests in the incredible power tyranny fueled by prevailing opinion has. It rivals any of the great tyrants and tyrannies of history and today: it’s a tyranny that has built into it a watchdog alertness to individual activities, requiring no cameras or bugged houses, only paternalistic quidnuncs with idle hands, assertive self-righteousness and morally sensitive personalities; it’s a communication device with a thousand tongues, willingly able to turn into a vengeful arm of enforcement through coercion and ostracism; it sustains itself in, for example, media outlets that are twisted to take its form, as these are businesses who do not want to lose their clients and so will feed what most of them, being the majority, want to hear and see.  (This is similar to Nicholas Carr’s idea of the “crazy quilt of Internet media” which shapes everything around it, including media outlets.)

Why this should be particularly of concern is that the tyranny of majority can really only arise in places which are supposed to be as far removed from typical tyranny as possible.

Cold Irony

Mill put it, as usually, very beautifully and succinctly.

 “Reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant — society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it — its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute 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 practises a social 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.” (Emphasis added.)

By “soul”, the atheist Mill was not referring to anything other than one’s entire life and existence. Mill points out here that acting on laws or mandates are not required by the tyranny of majority. And it is for this reason that it might be, in some cases, worse than a bad law. Law, after all, is not required to influence what does and does not arise in societies; mandates fueled by prevailing opinion, enforced by the tyranny of majority, is perhaps equally effective.

Unlike laws, there is almost nothing to attack under the tyranny of majority. We can fight bad laws – like the criminalisation of marijuana use – or promote good ones – like legalising prostitution – but you can’t change prevailing opinion on the rightness or wrongness of drugs and sex workers for most people. Law doesn’t equal morality. For example, though abortion is legal in the US, this does not reflect what some polls found of Americans’ opinions.

It is therefore inescapable. Prevailing opinion can’t be tangibly fought, it can only be consistently opposed where it is wrong. Testing prevailing opinion is part of the nature of this blog, after all. Remember: it is not that prevailing opinion is automatically wrong; it is that prevailing opinion can never be justified as right or true just because it’s the prevailing opinion. This would be an appeal to majority fallacy: it is right because so many say so.

People have sacrificed and do sacrifice much to prevailing opinion to stay employed, to maintain friendships and family, to seem part of a society. What people believe therefore becomes enveloped within the tyranny: they are shut up either through coercion or self-inflicted censorship (think of writers who refuse to criticise religion because it will hurt people’s feelings); they become conformed because they can’t escape their family, their job, their current life despite realising they no longer think the values or ideas true. And, too often, we read of ideas being silenced for the sake of peace or stability. But the contours of diplomacy are, when we step back, nothing but the curves on a body of lies. It is not unfathomable that prevailing opinion can be held not because the majority think it true but because they think all others, who might also disagree, will ostracise them. We could land up with a society who all disbelieve in the prevailing opinion on a subject, but maintain it for fear of a punishment that will never arise.

Thus, the best weapon the tyranny of majority uses is the silence of dissenters, the quiet succumbing of new victims swept into its clutches. (One is reminded of the most famously misattributed quotations in history, not said by Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”)

This means one of the only ways we can combat this tyranny is to use our voices, constantly, loudly, and where it matters. If I didn’t think this effective, you wouldn’t be reading this post.

Image Credit: jaddingt/Shutterstock


Up Next
Big Think is pleased to announce we are soliciting applications for the following position: Social Media Intern Big Think is looking for a Social Media Editor to run our daily […]