In the context of their war on “cancel culture” Republicans professes a profound devotion to the First Amendment, freedom of expression and the marketplace of ideas. As noted in earlier essays, they generally frame these battles in disingenuous ways or simply lie. For example, Republicans have raged against the alleged cancellation of Dr. Seuss, but the truth is that the estate of Dr. Seuss made a product line decision to stop selling six books. As another example, Republicans went into a frenzy when Hasbro renamed their Mr. Potato Head product line to “Potato Head” while keeping both Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head. In these cases, no laws were passed forcing the companies to do anything and these seemed to be marketing decisions based on changing consumer tastes and values.
While I am not in agreement with the Republicans in their made-up battles over free expression, I do agree with their publicly professed principles about free expression and the First Amendment. I believe in a presumption in favor of free expression and hence that the burden of proof rests on those who would limit this liberty. I go beyond most Republicans and hold that this liberty should also protect employees from their employers. While the Republicans, as I have argued elsewhere, advance bad faith arguments about tech companies and free expression, I do hold that the power of corporations and the wealthy to control and dominate expression needs to be countered by the power of the state. As such, I favor free expression even when I disagree with the expression. That is, obviously, what it means to be for freedom of expression. In contrast, Republicans do not seem to believe in free expression (though there are obviously some individual exceptions). One rather obvious piece of evidence is that Republicans have been busy trying to pass laws banning teaching critical race theory in public schools.
Critical race theory arose in United States law schools in the 1970s and has gradually expanded. In general terms, it is the view that laws, regulations, and values should be critically examined to determine if they have different impacts on different racial groups. Given the truism that people in different groups will often be impacted in different ways by the same thing, this theory seems reasonable. Since it is a broad academic theory, people do obviously disagree about the particulars—so I would not assert that any specific claim made by a critical race theorist must be true. Academics is, after all, a place for debate and rational disagreement.
Critical race theory also seems to have contributed to the development of such things as diversity training and has clear implications across academic disciplines. Being exposed to critical race theory can incline a person towards being, well, critical about matters of race—such as considering how a law might impact many black Americans differently from many white Americans. It can also influence people to be, well, critical about American history and make them less inclined to believe the historical narrative often advanced by the right. As such, it is hardly surprising that Republicans are hard at work trying to pass laws aimed at “cancelling” critical race theory. For example, an Idaho bill defines what the writers take to be critical race theory and forbids any courses or instruction that requires students to “affirm, adopt, or adhere” to said tenets. Some bills also ban mandatory diversity training and counseling.
On the one hand, one could make a liberty-based argument in favor of these bills. Students should have the freedom to choose their own values, so schools forcing students to “affirm, adopt or adhere” to an academic theory would be morally wrong. An obvious reply is that professors are already not supposed to do this to students and a student can justly complain if they are compelled to affirm, adopt, or adhere to the tenets of a theory. For example, if I started compelling my students to affirm trope theory, then the administration would certainly put a stop to this. Thus, this sort of bill could be seen as yet another example of Republicans trying to pass bills addressing problems that either do not exist or are already adequately handled by existing mechanisms.
On the other hand, there is a reasonable concern that such bills are obviously aimed at simply banning teaching this theory to students. This clearly and directly conflicts with the Republican’s alleged devotion to free expression, the First Amendment, and the marketplace of ideas. But they clearly do not subscribe to these principles. Rather they subscribe to the principle that people should be able to express views Republicans are willing to tolerate and they should be prevented from expressing views Republicans do not like. As noted above, the “cancel culture” examples presented by Republicans are cases where companies made marketing decisions, and no one passed a law to compel them. In the case of critical race theory, Republicans are attempting to directly use the compulsive power of the state to forbid the expression of specific types of ideas—a blatant violation of the First Amendment. Their base generally either does not recognize the inconsistency or does not care. As such, it is a clever move on their part: they can praise free expression out of one corner of their mouth while calling for censorship out of the other corner.
In terms of cancelling mandatory diversity training, it can be argued that this does not interfere with freedom of expression: such training can be offered, but people can opt out. Having been compelled to take a vast range of training over the years, I am very sympathetic to the idea that people should have the liberty to refuse training. For example, I have had to undergo mandatory training on how to use software that I had already been using for years. As another example, I have also been compelled to attend mandatory training on processes that could have easily been explained in a short email. However, there are many obvious problems with allowing people to exercise the liberty of avoiding training. One is that people who need the training might skip it, to the detriment of the school—and it is reasonable to expect people to be competent at their jobs and at they learn the values of the institution. As such, it is not a matter of freedom from mandatory training in general or even mandatory values training, but a very specific sort of mandatory value training—values that Republicans dislike. Arguments can certainly be made against specific types of mandatory value training on moral grounds. For example, if a school mandated that students be trained in fascist values, then a rather solid moral case can be made against that. In the case of diversity training, the challenge is to show how teaching people to be tolerant of those they must work, learn, or live with is morally wrong.
In closing, Republicans obviously do not subscribe to their professed principles of free expression, their claimed love of the First Amendment, and their alleged devotion to the marketplace of ideas. If they did, they would not be pushing these bills. They would, rather, let the marketplace of ideas sort out the good and bad ideas—something that they always say when they defend ideas of the extreme right. But they are operating in bad faith.