Conservatives Must Change Course on Free Speech | Opinion

The following essay is excerpted from Michael Knowles' new book, Speechless: Controlling Words, Controlling Minds, published June 22 by Regnery.

Contrary to the claims of many conservatives, political correctness did not trade "free speech" for "censorship" so much as it traded one set of standards for another, each with its own taboos. The ancient Israelites prohibited utterance of the Holy Name; politically correct moderns censor Mark Twain's use of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn. The traditional liturgical calendar dedicates February, March and June to the Holy Family, St. Joseph and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, respectively; the liturgical calendar of secular liberalism dedicates those months to Black history, women's history and pride, once considered the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, elevated by political correctness to the paramount virtue.

Political correctness accelerated its incursions on the old standards throughout the 1990s and 2000s, notably through the war on Christmas, an assault on traditional religion that the cultural revolutionaries alternately denied and downplayed. They sued cities to remove Nativity displays and then gaslit conservatives into believing the whole campaign was a figment of their imaginations. When those transformative efforts became impossible to deny, the same radicals insisted that the changes were insignificant, unworthy of conservatives' outrage.

In the second decade of the 21st century, politically correct reformers justified their demands that grown biological men be permitted use of women's bathrooms and changing rooms with the same "no big deal" attitude. But if the rise of transgender ideology did not constitute a major cultural shift, why did leftists expend so much time, effort and treasure promoting it? Gender dysphoria affects only a small number of people, but the thorough liberation that the radicals sought required overcoming not merely the oppressive constraints of culture but even the bounds of nature itself.

The gender ideologues justified their demands with pseudo-scientific jargon, and prominent scientists lent an air of authority to the radicals' political claims. Ironically, as political correctness politicized the most private and intimate aspects of citizens' lives, it simultaneously narrowed the scope of politics by declaring left-wing views "scientific" and therefore beyond the realm of legitimate debate. In the 1970s, "science" had determined that the Earth was headed for a new ice age, and therefore we must reorder society and government to avert disaster. When "global cooling" reversed course and became "global warming" over the ensuing decades, "science" demanded the same solutions to avoid the opposite calamity.

Politically correct reformers undermined the old standards by appealing to "free speech" and inveighing against "censorship," but no sooner had the radicals cracked the old moral order than they began to enforce a new standard of speech with all the force and rigidity they once claimed to oppose. Political correctness reached its apotheosis during the early weeks of 2021, when corporate enforcers of the new standards took the liberty of censoring a duly elected president of the United States.

Free speech campus protest
A woman stomps on a free speech sign after conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos spoke to a crowd of supporters on the University of California, Berkeley campus on September 24, 2017. Although a student group cancelled plans for Free Speech Week, Yiannopoulos was able to speak on campus surrounded by a heavy police presence. JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

Conservatives have failed to thwart political correctness because they mistake it for a campaign of "censorship" against "free speech" rather than a contest between two competing standards of speech and behavior. But even this description does not do justice to the cleverness of political correctness, which aims less to erect new standards than to destroy the old ones. Political correctness may be understood in this way to be a sort of "anti-standard standard," which succeeds just as surely by persuading people to abandon standards altogether—for instance, in the name of "free speech absolutism"—as it does by impelling acquiescence to its ever-changing dictates.

Politically correct radicals may demand that society redefine marriage on the grounds that sex and desire are innate and immutable, or they may justify their plan on the grounds that sex is socially constructed and there are no such things as "men" or "women." The premises on which the radicals base their demands may contradict one another, but no matter which justification they choose, the traditional conception of marriage must be destroyed. In fact, the insistence on mutually contradictory rationales actually furthers the radicals' ends by rendering people, in George Orwell's words, "unwilling and unable to think too deeply on any subject whatsoever." Orwell called this tactic "doublethink," and he credited it with enabling regimes to "arrest the course of history."

As we have seen, conservatives have mustered two responses, both of which have only accelerated the progress of the radicals' campaign. The most conciliatory conservatives have simply gone along, ceding one piece of the culture after another to political correctness. Their more curmudgeonly brethren have refused to abide by political correctness but nonetheless have effectively tolerated it on broadly liberal grounds. "Free speech absolutists" have refused to acknowledge that liberty entails limits, retreating instead to skeptical platitudes upholding licentiousness, which previous generations of conservatives including the Founding Fathers understood to be the very opposite of liberty. William F. Buckley Jr. denounced this sort of political cowardice in God and Man at Yale when he observed, "Skepticism has utility only when it leads to conviction." Unfortunately, since Buckley's time, conservatives have lost their conviction, appealing to a neutral liberal order that never existed. Too many conservatives have become liberals, as Richard Weaver defined the liberal: "someone who doubts his premises even while he is acting on them." In the words of Yeats, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." The old standards never stood a chance.

Conservatives may perhaps recover some of their squandered cultural inheritance, but any such hope requires changing course. First and foremost, conservatives must ditch the tired slogans that they have parroted for decades. There has never been any such thing as absolute "free speech," and conservatives' delusions to the contrary have afforded radicals the opportunity to dismantle the traditional moral order that conservatives purport to uphold.

Michael Knowles is a conservative political commentator and host of The Michael Knowles Show at The Daily Wire. In addition to his daily podcast, Knowles frequently writes opinion commentary and speaks on college campuses for the Young America's Foundation.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.