July 20th, 2009 by Hafiz Noor Shams
I had trouble writing not too long ago. This is one of few reasons why my column at The Malaysian Insider was published late after Monday in the past few weeks. I constantly found myself writing several paragraphs only to delete it, deciding that I wanted to write something else instead. At first, I figured it was just typical writer’s block.
As I typically do when I find myself in that situation, I took time off to clear my head; in place of writing, I will turn to reading.
I had been trying to finish On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. I had spent too much time on it. Despite being a short piece, despite the fact that I am familiar with his ideas and despite that many of his ideas are the basis of my ideals, his style of writing proves difficult to follow. It requires a kind of concentration that casual reading just will not do.
If I sound as if I am complaining, please rest assured that I am not doing so. On the contrary, the effort demanded bore fruition for me for four reasons: it clarifies Mill’s idea for me, it strengthens my belief in individual liberty, it clarifies my own thought on the limits of government as I prepare to read Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia and it answers why I had trouble writing.
What I suffered was not writer’s block at all. The problem was fear of reprisal from readers and individuals whom I have come acquainted with, be they friends, activists or politicians. Even since I become a columnist at the popular The Malaysian Insider, relatively, I have become more widely read. Forgive me if I am blowing my own trumpet but the following has to be written to provide context to my problem because being relatively widely read means I get the opportunity to meet more persons than I would otherwise.
I most treasure those relationships. With this in mind, I tend moderate my opinion so that whatever I say or write does not overly affect any good relationship I have.
At first, this was a small problem but it gradually, and unexpectedly, grew in weight that it began to adversely affect my ability, or rather, my willingness to write, offering criticism or simply different perspective. I did not realize that until I came around a chapter in On Liberty which touches on the effect of public opinion on individuality.
Opinions of these acquaintances have become what Mill calls public opinion. This public opinion quietly had suppressed my opinion simply because I care too much about what these people think of me. I, uncharacteristically, was afraid of becoming different.
Furthermore, the greater audience, compared to the one I had when I was simply writing for my blog, had caused me to be cautious about the issue that I chose to touch on. For instance, I have not written anything about religion for a very long time now. I know that my opinion on religion can get me into trouble, since I maintain an irreverent position with regards to it; Many among the Malaysian society are conservative when it comes to religion; their opinion too can be identified as what Mill calls public opinion.
These fears unconsciously encouraged me to commit to self-censorship, allowing the so-called public opinion to prevail over what I consider as better opinion in the public arena. The so-call public opinion then win the battle not because it is the best of all arguments, but because of numbers. There is only one me and there are countless of them,
The following from Mill’s On Liberty woke me up from falling into the trap of conformity:
There is one characteristic of the present direction of public opinion, peculiarly calculated to make it intolerant of any marked demonstration of individuality. The general average of mankind are not only moderate in intellect, but also of moderate in inclinations: they have no tastes or wishes strong enough to incline them to do anything unusual, and they consequently do not understand those who have, and class all such with the wild and the intemperate whom they are accustomed to look down upon. Now, in addition to this fact which is general, we have only to suppose that a strong movement has set in towards the improvement of morals, and it is evident what we have to expect. In these days such a movement has set in; much has actually been effected in the way of increased regularity of conduct, and discouragement of excesses; and there is a philanthropic spirit abroad, for the exercise of which there is no more inviting field than the moral and prudential improvement of our fellow creatures. These tendencies of the times cause the public to be more disposed than at most former periods to prescribe general rules of conducts, and endeavour to make every one conform to the approved standard. And that standard, express or tacit, is to desire nothing strongly. Its ideal of character is to be without any marked character; to maim by compression, like a Chinese lady’s foot, every part of human nature which stands out prominently, and tends to make the person markedly dissimilar in outline to commonplace humanity.
As is usually the case with ideals which exclude one-half of what is desirable, the present standard of approbation produces only an inferior imitation of the other half. Instead of great energies guided by vigorous reason, and strong feelings strongly controlled by a conscientious will, its result is weak feelings and weak energies, which therefore can be kept in outward conformity to rule without any strength either of will or of reason. Already energetic characters on any large scale are becoming merely traditional… [John Stuart Mill. Chapter IV: Of the Limits to the Authority of Society Over the Individual. On Liberty. 1859
Those fears of mine threaten to suppress my individuality. I will not tolerate that.