The conservative outrage about cancel culture this past week reached a fevered pitch. Right-wing politicians have used their CPAC speeches and social media accounts to decry people being forced to change what they say in the name of mob sentiments. Culture war commentators in newspapers and online outlets have written lengthy broadsides against this current form of political correctness. Fox News has seemingly spent more time on the issue than the pandemic that still grips the country.
This rightwing focus has been couched in the honorable defense of free speech and free thought. Those are fundamental principles of this country, no doubt, but don’t be fooled — American conservatives have no interest in these abstract principles. Instead, all they care about is defending a time when racism, sexism, and anti-LGBT sentiments were commonplace and acceptable.
Consider this story that completely failed to make a dent in the rightwing media scape: Two years ago, a fourth grader teacher in a South Carolina public school asked students to write an “essay to society” on any topic that the principal was then going to collect into a booklet for the entire class and their families. One of the students in the class submitted a paragraph for this assignment on a topic that she cared deeply about. But when the principal went to compile the essays into the class booklet, the principal decided that the essay topic was not “appropriate,” “would be disagreeable,” and “would make other parents upset.” Ultimately, the principal and the teacher forced the student to write her essay about a different topic entirely. Earlier this week, a federal appeals court ruled that the principal and school district were well within their rights to refuse to publish this student’s essay.
The fact that the government censored a student’s paper based on concerns about what the public wanted barely registered on social media or mainstream news. I couldn’t find a single politician who’s said a word about this case. And the commentators who are filling screens and newspapers with screeds about cancel culture have said nothing, instead focusing on sharing memes and stoking outrage about Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head, and the Muppets.
What explains this pin-drop silence in the face of actual government censorship? Reading the student’s actual essay will answer that question. Here’s what the student wrote (with all of the cute misspellings that come from quoting a fourth grader):
“I don’t know if you know this but peoples view on Tran’s genders is an issue. People think that men should not dress like a women, and saying mean things. They think that they are choosing the wrong thing in life. In the world people can choose who they want to be not being told that THEIR diction is wrong. I hope people understand that people can hurt themselves from others hurting their feelings. People need to think before they speak because one word can hurt someone’s feelings. We need to fix this because this is getting out of hand!”
A school censoring a fourth grader writing about transgender people deserving to be treated with respect and equality? A student who cares about the deep wounds that words can leave and the problem of self-harm in vulnerable communities? To no one’s surprise, the rightwing outrage machine that has been railing against cancel culture recently, perhaps even making it the primary part of the Republican platform right now, has said absolutely nothing about this school or this court ruling endorsing this school’s censorship. And the reason is obvious — the right doesn’t care about trans rights, so they don’t care about this student, to use their words, being canceled.
The hypocrisy shouldn’t shock anyone, even though this story has something that the outrages de jour lack. Unlike the Dr. Seuss publishers making a business decision to stop publishing certain books, or Disney+ making a business decision to put disclaimers before certain Muppet Show episodes, or Hasbro making a business decision about how to brand their Potato Head product line, the story of the fourth grade student’s trans rights essay involves the government censoring an individual.
This difference is everything. When a private business makes a business decision about the best way to market and sell their products, that’s the essence of capitalism and something companies do every minute of every day. That has nothing to do with censorship or free speech. But, when a government stops an individual from speaking — that’s exactly what censorship is.
But no one talking about “cancel culture” cares about censorship of this fourth-grade student. What this shows is something vitally important about the current political discourse, something everyone needs to keep in mind when they read or hear the right’s complaints: Those who rail against cancel culture don’t care about free speech or censorship or any other neutral principle. If they did, they’d care about the trans rights essay. Rather, the only thing they care about are the substantive values behind the issue.
As in the Dr. Seuss and Muppets situations, the right cares about protecting a time when racially offensive stereotypes in books and television shows were funny and cute. As in the Potato Head situation, they care about a time when boys and men were the default for a product and girls and women were afterthoughts. What they absolutely do not care about is, as in the fourth grader’s story, protecting transgender people from oppression.
So next time someone uses the nonsense term “cancel culture” or anything like it, make sure you understand exactly what they are talking about — not the idea of free speech or censorship, but rather the underlying substance of what is being “canceled.” In other words, the right in this country cares not about free speech but rather about protecting racism and sexism. They just don’t want to say it that way.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of the sub-headline of this story stated that the student who wrote the paragraph was transgender. She is not trans, but she supports trans rights.
David S. Cohen is a professor of law at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law.