We already know partisanship can be toxic. It also has some overlooked side effects. Team politics — the type of partisanship in which adherents of a party excuse every act of hypocrisy and wrongdoing by their own side while exaggerating and lying about the purported evils of the other — fuels censorship.
Consider climate change, by some measures the issue about which Democrats and Republicans most disagree. During its four years in power the Trump Administration deleted more than 1,400 references to global warming from U.S. government agency and department websites. Climate scientists reacted by censoring themselves, using terms like “global change,” “environmental change,” and “extreme weather” instead.
After Biden took over, it was Democrats’ turn to suppress dissent. The new president’s top climate-change advisor pushed Silicon Valley to crack down on climate-change skeptics. Facebook, which like most social media companies is aligned with Democratic politics, now classifies posts that deviate from majority scientific opinion as “misinformation” and deletes them. In response to the change in political winds, some scientists have reversed their public stances in order to reduce their risk of losing funding.
Whatever you think about climate change or other issues, reasonable people ought to be able to agree about how to disagree: let everyone speak. Open and vigorous discussion and debate is the most effective way to arrive at societal consensus based on solid information. There’s a catch: you have to be willing to hear and listen to opinions with which you disagree expressed by people you may dislike.
We are moving away from that ideal. According to polls, we are becoming less tolerant of opposing views. 55% of Americans tell Pew Research that the federal government should restrict false information even if their censorship restricts freedom of information, up from 39% in 2018. (70% of Democrats share this view as opposed to 39% of Republicans.) 65% are OK with tech companies censoring speech, up from 56% in 2018.
Americans support free expression of views with which they agree. The other side, they think, should be neither seen nor heard. 36% think banning hate speech is more important than free speech and 35% don’t think the First Amendment should protect comedians and satirists, according to a 2021 Freedom Forum survey. Only 63% would vote for the First Amendment if it were on the ballot.
So Southern conservatives ban LGBTQ+ books while liberals turn a blind eye to Twitter shutting down accounts belonging to Donald Trump and the right-wing New York Post, the latter over the Hunter Biden laptop story—which turned out to be true. Democrats lose sometimes, Republicans lose other times, and the censors win all the time.
As a left-leaning cartoonist and writer, I have often found myself under political fire amid calls to silence me by terminating my employment or not permitting my work to be distributed. A former candidate for president even suggested that I ought to be executed. Even though I have spoken out publicly against liberal censorship campaigns directed at right-wingers like Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Rush Limbaugh, no conservative has come to my defense.
Now the cancel-culture brigade has moved from right to left and the censors are targeting conservatives. The satirical news site Babylon Bee, the social media platform Rumble and other figures on the Right have filed a court challenge to a new New York State law that prohibits social-media posts a court determines to “vilify, humiliate, or incite violence against a group” over “race, color, religion, ethnicity, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.” The law, backed by heavy fines and probably unconstitutional because “hate speech” is protected under the First Amendment, also requires aggressive comment moderation and mandates that angry readers be provided with a venue to report offenders.
My first reaction is to be appalled by Attorney General Letitia James’ heavy-handed attempt to curb freedom of expression. My second is to note the right-leaning politics of the plaintiffs. Conservatives are silent when their allies and fellow travelers go after people like me. Why should we speak up on their behalf? Why not zap up some popcorn, pour a glass of Chardonnay and bask in the schadenfreude?
The answer, of course, is that the enemy of my enemy isn’t always my friend. As committed as I am to my Marxist-Leninist point of view, rhetorical class war must take a back seat to the fight against censorship even when the censors identify with the left and their victims belong to the right. A society in which censorship becomes normalized is doomed to authoritarianism and dictatorship without any political debate whatsoever; odds are slim indeed that what remains will be an ideological orientation that you will personally find agreeable. Team politics divides victims of censorship and benefits the forces of repression.
Whether they know it or not, the editors of the Babylon Bee and their allies are defending people like me. I hope that conservatives will draw the same conclusion and start to form alliances of convenience with the left when we struggle for the right to be heard. As for me, I support anyone who takes on censors, liberals and conservatives alike.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the left-vs-right DMZ America podcast with fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)