Quit accusing Democrats of runaway political correctness. Republicans are just as keen on censoring speech — but it’s a different kind of speech they choose to censor.
Supposedly the main appeal of an unfiltered candidate such as Donald Trump, who shoots first and asks no questions later, is that he feels free to speak the unvarnished, unfettered truth. “I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness,” he announced in the first presidential primary debate in Cleveland, when asked to address his many disparaging comments about women.
This is a man clearly unafraid to speak his mind, who cannot be muzzled simply because the things he says are unpopular or offensive. After Trump was excluded from a political event because of remarks he made about Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly, one of Trump’s fans complained of being “so sick of political correctness that I may puke.” Other Republican presidential candidates seem keen on tapping into that same frustration about allegedly ubiquitous political correctness, which a recent unpublished YouGov poll showed that 84 percent of Republicans (but just 48 percent of Democrats) worry about.
During the Cleveland debate, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) pledged to always “speak the truth,” no matter how divisive or discordant his particular version of the truth might be. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made similar comments, both at the debate and elsewhere, always drawing the implicit comparison between true, conservative leaders such as himself and those eggshell-preserving, speech-policing liberals.
But such insinuations about Republicans’ unique appreciation of First Amendment rights make little sense. Republicans are just as likely to boldly bowdlerize when they get offended.
Sure, Democrats are more open to banning hate speech and more skittish about publishing drawings of Muhammad. But a recent Harris poll on censorship found that Republicans are more apt to want to scrub other forms of discourse. For example, Republicans are almost twice as likely — 42 percent vs. 23 percent — as Democrats to say that “there are any books that should be banned completely.”
A separate set of questions asked what kind of books should be barred from school libraries specifically. In almost every category, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to endorse book bans. That includes “books with explicit language” (bye-bye, “Catcher in the Rye”); “books which include witchcraft or sorcery” (to the slaughter, “Harry Potter”); “books which include vampires” (night night, “Twilight”); “books that discuss evolution” (into the bin, Darwin); and “books which question the existence of a divine being or beings” (quit your squawking, Stephen Hawking).
The only school library categories about which Republicans were more open-minded than Democrats were “books that discuss creationism” and, perhaps not surprisingly, the Bible.
Literature wasn’t the only medium that Republican respondents said was ripe for purging, according to the Harris poll. Compared with Democrats, Republicans were also more likely to say that some video games, movies and television programs should be banned. (Not that such paternalistic cultural censorship campaigns have been the sole purview of conservatives; they’ve also been famously taken up by Tipper Gore, among other liberals.)
Liberals and conservatives, then, seem pretty keen on trampling upon speech they find transgressive; they’re just sensitive to different transgressions.
Of course, there’s one other important point to consider when thinking about the speech-fettering perpetuated, in practice or in fantasy, by the left and the right. In some cases these attempts at censorship — banning books, for example — involve government actors, in which case they actually do constitute First Amendment violations. The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech,” after all.
But most of the complaints about censorship supposedly perpetrated by liberals instead involve private actors responding to offensive speech: Macy’s and Univision severing their business relationships with Trump after his bigoted comments about Mexicans, for example. Conservatives grumbling about such enforcements of “political correctness” cannot claim any constitutional violation, though you’d never know that from the many assertions, from Trump and his allies, that such private retaliations violated his “First Amendment rights.”
What Trump and his supporters are championing is not free speech, but consequence-free speech: the ability to spew whatever hateful or odious thing that comes to mind and suffer no loss of love, respect or business opportunities. But no such right has ever been guaranteed, either by the Constitution or civil society, and recoiling from such commentary isn’t censorship. It’s just human decency.