The Freedom to Cancel
The threat of "cancel culture" has become a major focus of the political right recently. This year's Conservative Political Action Conference was even titled "America Uncanceled." That focus has only become more intense after it was announced that 6 of Dr. Seuss' books would no longer be printed due to including racist images. This decision about children's books has led to days of outrage, debate, and headlines from sources all across the spectrum. And arguments both for and against cancelling have been flawed.
Let's start with the problem in the conservative argument against cancel culture. When someone or something is "cancelled," it does not violate free speech. To prove it, here's the First Amendment. (Side note: My girlfriend gave me a pocket Constitution for Christmas just so I can be one of those obnoxious people.)
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
See, it starts with "Congress shall make no law". The First Amendment, along with the rest of The Bill of Rights, places limits on the power of the federal government. This means that no one can be arrested and thrown in jail for anything they say or write. That's really important, but that's all it is. Freedom of speech is not:
- freedom from being wrong. Things people say can be wrong and no one else needs to accept them as valid.
- freedom from consequences. Things people say can hurt or offend other people. This can result in groups rejecting them or their employer firing them.
- the right to a platform. You are free to say whatever you want on any street corner in America, but no person or company is obligated to amplify that speech.
- the right to an audience. No college students need to accept their money being given to a speaker they find offensive because college is about being exposed to different ideas.
The right has framed this issue as much more dangerous than it really is. People are free to react to speech however they choose. Cancelling someone does not impact that person's individual freedom. It's more about what the larger society views as acceptable and unacceptable. Which brings me to the issue with the liberal argument. The headlines on the left highlighted that the right is overreacting and halting the printing of these books due to racist imagery is justified. We have evolved as a society and have determined that these images are no longer acceptable. This seems morally righteous, but it ignores an important fact: this decision was easy. None of the 6 six books identified as having racist illustrations were Dr. Seuss' most famous. These are the books with their original publication years:
- And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937)
- McElligot's Pool (1947)
- If I Ran the Zoo (1950)
- Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953)
- On Beyond Zebra! (1955)
- The Cat's Quizzer (1976)
Most of these were among Dr. Seuss' earlier works, but they span a number of years. What if one of those illustrations had been in The Cat in the Hat (1957) or Green Eggs and Ham (1960)? This isn't the case, but those weren't from a completely different phase of his career. And I suspect the decision would have been different if a racist image had been found in one of those very profitable books. Unfortunately, addressing racism will mean accepting that it is part of the foundation of the United States. It exists throughout the country's history. We might not be able to simply remove all racist art and move forward. Instead, we'll need to learn how to appreciate, present, and enjoy some of it within a modern context.