Despite all the preening about "free speech" on the right, the truth is complaints about "cancel culture" have always been code for "conservatives can say whatever terrible things they want, and liberals can shut up about it." And while play-acting as the victims of censorship because liberals mock or criticize them, Republicans have been busy actually silencing free speech: from demanding that athletes be fired for kneeling during the national anthem to, memorably, Donald Trump ordering the tear-gassing of peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park. While conservatives whine about oppression because people call them "racist" on Twitter, they are actually using complaints about "wokeness" as an excuse for the literal government censorship of discourse that acknowledges the reality of racism, as Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times chronicled.
That's conservatism, of course: Always projecting their own sins onto their liberal opponents.
But the Republican enthusiasm for censorship has become even more pronounced in the past few weeks, as they've escalated the purge of any party members who refuse to sign onto the Big Lie that Joe Biden "stole" the election and that the Capitol insurrection was no big deal.
On Monday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. — following in the footsteps of that other, more infamous McCarthy — escalated the blacklisting of Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., for admitting that the insurrection was a real thing that really happened because Donald Trump was really trying to steal an election that Joe Biden really won. McCarthy sent a letter to the Republican caucus declaring his intention to lead the effort to remove Cheney from her leadership position for said thought crimes and included a real howler of a closing paragraph.
"We are a big tent party," McCarthy insisted, as they purge anyone who refuses to sign off the Big Lie. "And unlike the left, we embrace free thought and debate."
Of course, not if you think thoughts about admitting reality or debate those who insist on fealty to a lie.
McCarthy got ripped on Twitter, as he rightly deserved. But really, his Orwellian use of "free thought" is just more of the same from Republicans, who have continually used claims of support for "free speech" and opposition to "cancel culture" as cover for their efforts to stifle speech, protest, and debate.
Witness, for instance, the right-wing freakout du jour, over a speech last week from Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., in which she used the term "birthing people." Bush's speech was about the lack of decent maternal care in the U.S., and drew on her own personal experiences of watching a son nearly die and almost losing another pregnancy because doctors didn't take her health concerns seriously. But conservatives decided to harp on her word choice, accusing Bush of trying to replace the term "mother" with "birthing people."
But Bush did no such thing, as anyone who actually listened to her speech heard. She said, "I sit before you today as a single mom, as a nurse, as an activist, and as a Congresswoman, and I am committed to doing the absolute most to protect Black mothers. To protect Black babies. To protect Black birthing people. And to save lives."
Emphasis mine, because Bush's critics clearly don't read so good. Or really, they do, but they are lying liars who are arguing in bad faith, pretending to be victims of "cancel culture" while actually launching a massive pressure campaign designed to stifle any discussion or acknowledgment of the fact that "mother" and "person who gave birth" are not neatly overlapping categories, due to practices like adoption or the existence of trans identities.
No doubt, "birthing persons" is a clunky phrase that is unlikely to take off in the common parlance. But the issue here isn't awkward phrasing, it's about the right trying to cancel thoughts or discussions that make them uncomfortable — and doing so, in their Orwellian way, while pretending to actually be for "free speech."
But this is par for the course with right wing hysterics over "cancel culture." Scratch the surface and they are typically aimed not at expanding the discourse, but contracting it so that the only allowable ideas are those that fit comfortably into conservative orthodoxy.
The meltdown over the estate of Dr. Seuss delisting a few obscure titles for racist imagery? That's really more about conservatives being unwilling to deal honestly with the history of racism than it is about "free speech." The whining about Mr. Potato Head rebranding to a more gender-neutral Potato Head? That's mostly about conservatives wanting to crush any childish experimentation with gender presentation, which is more about silencing rather than empowering free expression.
Even some Republicans are starting to be a little uncomfortable with the contradiction between Republican claims of being for "free thought" and their actual behavior, which is about cracking down on anyone who disagrees or even just acknowledges inconvenient truths. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, got angry over Cheney's defenestration and told reporters, "I feel it's okay to go ahead and express what you feel is right to express and, you know, cancel culture is cancel culture," and complained about "those that are trying to silence others in the party."
But this is nothing new, as demonstrated by the widespread support for Donald Trump and his lengthy efforts to stifle anti-racism protesters, whether they're playing professional sports or just trying to avoid tear gas canisters in front of the White House. Anger over "cancel culture" was never a robust defense of free speech. As with the Republican war on democracy itself, it's an assertion that the shrinking white conservative minority should have political and social hegemony, untouched by either progressive criticism or pushback at the ballot box.
The Cheney purge illustrates this reality perfectly. She's being blacklisted both for saying things that make Republicans uncomfortable and for asserting that the person who won the election should be president. Republicans were never for "free speech," and recent events just make that almost comically apparent.