Are Mill’s fears about the tyranny of the majority well founded?

The ‘tyranny of the majority’ is a term to describe how the interest and force of the majority of the population can lead to the oppression of the minority. This divide between the two groups could be down to a difference in religion, social class, ethnicity etc. From a reading of On Liberty by Mill, it is clear that he was fearful about this occurring because he believed in the right for every individual and because he thought that the tyranny of the majority was worse than the tyranny of the government because ‘its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries’ (Mill, 2005).

The difference between the tyranny of the majority and the tyranny of the government is that protecting minorities ‘against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them’ is much more difficult. Minorities can be oppressed in ways other than discrimination through governmental means such as social exclusion. Mill strongly believed in individual rights and therefore individuals from the minority have the same amount of rights as any person in the majority to pursue their ends. His solution is to ‘restrict the legitimate sphere of government activity’ as the ‘interference of government is, with about equal frequency, improperly invoked and improperly condemned’. From here, Mill suggested implementing the Harm Principle which states that ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of the civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’ (Mill, 2005). Individuals have rights and privileges and should be left to make their own decisions with these rights unless it affects others in a harmful way. With this, the minority should be protected as the government would interfere if there were individuals being harmed by the majority of the society.

An example of a minority being oppressed is in Burma where a group of Muslims called Rohingya who live in the northern state of Rakhine are forced to follow a different set of laws by the government than the rest of the population. In the article ‘The Most Oppressed People In The World’ by Anne Morse, she goes through all the many ways the Rohingya’s lives have been affected simply by being a minority group and how this has worsened over time. It started in 1982 when the Rohinya were no longer considered citizens of Burma and this resulted in them being listed as illegal immigrants and have since constantly ‘live[d] under threat of extortion and bribery from local government officials’ (Morse, 2013). Attempts to attain marriage and child licenses can lead to fines or imprisonment and their right to reproduce have only increasingly become more removed from them as the ‘Arakan majority actively seeks to prevent the Rohingya from reproducing’ (Morse, 2013) and in September 2012, a two-child limit was imposed. The reasoning behind it, which goes back to Niebuhr’s idea on how the majority would be able to justify the benefits of their cause to the whole of society, was that by reducing the number of Rohingya, there would be less tension between ethnic groups and therefore there would be less violent discrimination in society. This two-child limit was able to be implemented even though the source of the ethnic tension have largely come from the mobs of the Akaran majority terrorising the Rohingya through ‘loot[ing] Muslim stores, burn[ing] down mosques, and incinerat[ing] entire Muslim neighbourhoods’ (Morse, 2013). This is a very extreme example of how the tyranny of the majority have really affected the day-to-day life of a minority simply based on religious differences. Burma is a very corrupt country where government officials are known to have accepted bribery and have gone unpunished for violent crimes so in a way, we cannot say that truly democratic countries are able to go as far as Burma has in their mistreatment of a minority group. However, it is still fair to say that the issue of the tyranny of the majority is one that still occurs in modern times and therefore it is still something governments should be aware of and make the effort to prevent from happening.

However, it could be argued that the tyranny of the majority is not as big of an issue as Mill made it out to be. In today’s world, we see many different minority groups who are able to live in the same country without being completely oppressed. If we look at the United States of America, there are a significant proportion of Latin Americans and African-Americans who are able to live in a country where the majority of the population is Caucasian. There are also many different religious groups and social classes in the USA. Hermens pointed out in his essay The “Tyranny of the Majority” that it ‘takes members of many minorities to make up a majority’ and that ‘government by majority is government by persuasion’. His main argument was that in a democracy, politicians have to appeal to as many people as they can in order to gain support and this includes the majority as well as the minorities. The best chance they have at getting voted in is to suggest plans and causes that will benefit all the different groups of people in the country and therefore allowing the majority to oppress the minority would not help with their political image. It is the ‘very nature of the contest between parties [that] tends, in fact, to frustrate any attempt of one group to tyrannize the other’ (Hermens, 1958). Hermens also believed that in democratic countries, ‘there now exists organised groups for the purpose of fighting movements that preach intolerance’ and ‘these groups are composed for the most part of people who belong to the majority, and work for tolerance because they are repelled by intolerance’ (Hermens, 1958). He seems to think more highly of individuals who are part of the majority than the other people I have mentioned in this article as it is suggested that it is not only the minorities who would be against the tyranny of the majority but also the people who would actually benefit from this simply because it is seen as wrong. I think this shows how society has improved over time at preventing the issue of oppressed minorities from arising in democratic countries and how government intervention could actually be a solution to rather than a source of the tyranny of the majority.

Mill was justified in bringing up the issue of the tyranny of the majority arising in democracy and it is evident even in present times that as a result of having a democracy, minorities are often left unheard and mistreated because of the interests of the majority. However, as time has gone by, more people are aware of this occurring in society and it seems as though even members of the majority are willing to fight against it simply because of how wrong it is. It is a well-founded argument by Mill but with changes in society, such as the increasing value placed on human rights and anti-discrimination laws, it may soon no longer be an issue in democratic countries.

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