I don't know who said it–can't find it on the Web anywhere–but the other day someone told me the pithiest characterization of the reds and the blues that I've ever heard:
"Conservatives want to control what you're allowed to say. Liberals want to control what words you're allowed to use to say it."
Examples of each are thick on the ground. Conservatives actively work to prevent people from talking about evolution, or abortion, or contraception. Liberals don't want people to say "black," or "woman" (remember "womyn"?), or other "politically incorrect" usages.The distinction isn't absolute, of course–few things are.
Liberals are rather desperate to prevent discussion of the heritability of mental characteristics, for instance–especially intelligence. (Remember the death threats directed at the authors of The Bell Curve?) And conservatives are adamant about the usage "partial-birth abortion." But I still think that in general, the distinction holds true.
Both approaches are power plays, of course–seeking to control or at least influence what people think and speak about, and how they think and speak about it. But the effort to control what people speak about, it seems to me, is far more contrary to our founders' intent than trying to control the rhetorical spin of that speech.
When in 1837 the mobs in Alton, Illinois threw Elizah Lovejoy's printing press in the Missisippi (four times–the last time also killing Lovejoy) because he evangelized for abolition in his publications, that was, I think we could say comfortably, controlling what a person is allowed to say. That's very different from promoting a particular rhetorical lexicon, and heaping derision on those who stray from that lexicon.
Likewise, passing laws that control what doctors, schoolteachers, and everyday citizens are allowed to say is a very different thing from using rhetoric to control what words people are comfortable saying.
So again, we have the "conservatives" attacking and undercutting perhaps the fundamental American right–the right of free speech–using the force of law, while the "liberals" merely seek to dominate that speech by promulgating specific language (admittedly, often in wacky and twisted ways).
Who's the true conservative here?