The vast majority of us have visited YouTube and scrolled through viewer comments, snickering at many users who have built up an infamous reputation for their often immature, illogical, and/or radical views. Likely, we have been quick to dismiss their views as utter nonsense. However, John Stuart Mill has a different philosophy about how to respond to our video-commenting peers. According to Mill, “It is not too much to require that the wisest of mankind, those who are best entitled to trust their own judgment…be submitted to by a miscellaneous collection of a few wise and many foolish individuals, called the public.” (On Liberty, Ch. 2) Each opinion that is stated, no matter how ridiculous it may sound, is highly valuable because it allows us to gauge just how accurate our own opinions are. In other words, “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race…of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth.” (Ch. 2) As Mill explains, if we do not debate ideas, even if they are popular and widely-held, they become a “dead dogma” and a form of prejudice.
If a commenter explains to us why Elvis is still alive, we review our own factual knowledge, and strengthen our belief that he is dead. If a commenter believes a video to be “lame”, such as the image above, we are led to question our own opinion of the video, and formulate a stronger conclusion. Nearly every comment serves as a valuable tool for testing our own beliefs. As such, almost any comment is fair-game, unless commenters fail to stick with what Mill calls “fair discussion.” The bounds of “fair discussion” are anything short of a departure from civil discourse. The image below displays a directly-stated death threat- clearly failing to meet the criteria of civil discourse. It is therefore unacceptable.
Additionally, as Mill (and Socrates) explain, there exists the ever-present possibility that the common idea turns out to be false. If a YouTube commenter explains his reasoning for why September 11th was an inside-job, we must accept the possibility that he is correct. For the same reason, those who challenge the law of gravity have a right to speak their mind. Any comment is valuable be
cause we don’t know anything for sure, and anything could end up being accurate. This therefore makes our own opinions no less powerful than theirs. As such, criticism of their comments is not justified.
Mill uses the historical examples of Socrates and Jesus Christ as two individuals whose unpopular beliefs were suppressed by society. In our society today, very little has changed in this respect. It’s a stretch, but each YouTube commenter we disregard may end up becoming the greatest philosopher or idealogue of the 21st century. We must respect every opinion for that reason as well.
We are obligated to respect our commenting-peers, for “on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.” (Ch. 2) In light of Mill’s philosophy, we should all take a moment to think twice before “voting down” a YouTube comment.