is a parachute phrase for the famous and powerful to deploy when the humming drones below them take issue with something they say or do. They believe that when they say something that is against the beliefs or moral standards of their audience, they should be allowed to retain their audience. To them, long-term possession of their audience is the manifestation of free speech. In their mind this is an unfair thing to happen. They cannot defend themselves against an angry mob. It is an impossible situation: they crossed a line that they did not know was there until they had already violated it, offended people that they didn't even believe were listening. If there were only a few detractors, they could be debated with and fair ground settled. But in the midst of being punished for their opinions, and unable to do anything about it, they claim that a new and dangerous social ill has fallen upon the land: the ominous cancel culture.
In my opinion, cancel culture is more than fair. I regard it as a remarkably democratic kind of punishment. This is because to remove such a person requires that their indiscretion is widely understood as unacceptable. That is the "culture" aspect of it. This is distinguished from other ways that our society stifles and punishes free speech, many of which do not require the consent of a large majority.
We fundamentally care about what other people think of us. This is not just habit, it is instinct. Social standing in primates is linked to breeding rights, and pack dynamics reward certain behaviors and punish others. Having someone look deeply into your person, gaze into the truth and clarity of your soul and tell you they don't like what they see is enough to ruin a whole dinner. Sometimes when you know that you've been particularly weird or bad, eye contact alone is enough to ruin your day. That's why I don't think free speech really exists.
Maybe it's not a good thing to punish people for their opinions at all. The concept of free speech extends beyond merely not being arrested for your statements: if your job depends on what you say, then you don't have free speech. I'm using the phrase "free speech" here less in the conventional sense of legally accepted expression and more of a description of full mental latitude. Sure, you won't be arrested for saying something offensive in front of your boss, but you can feel the constraints tightening around your acceptable speech. You can't actually say what's on your mind. That is not freedom. It's a societal constraint that is neither regulated nor enforced by the government, and because we are so used to discussing speech only from a perspective of state power, it's easy to misunderstand. Imagine a continuum between having your mouth wired shut and verbally spamming out every coherent phrase that comes to mind.
Under this description, I think it's fair to say that fully free speech doesn't exist. Unless you're grunting in the wilderness or howling into an uncaring void, what you say does matter, and carries consequences. Even without realizing those consequences, as long as you anticipate negative outcomes for the ways in which you express yourself, you are feeling those constraints. It's not a black and white matter in the way that a lot of Americans think about free speech. It's an intermittently negotiated amount of leeway that your social surroundings permit to you. Whether or not it is a good thing is irrelevant: it simply happens, and it happens to all of us.
Sometimes you will feel restricted by others, or do the restricting yourself. You will say "fellow person, that wasn't a very nice thing to say, what would your mother think?", or "perhaps the world would actually not be better off if that race were to be exterminated." These are polite ways of reminding people that social boundaries for their expression do exist, and are located in the minds of others. But because like a lot of relationships, the power in this relationship is negotiated, sometimes the offender will be a Boss. A powerful Person. And anybody who doesn't like it can Stuff It.
And so a lot of people who are used to climbing above those surroundings, who feel the joy of those burdens being lifted from them are surprised that when they use a society-wide platform to broadcast their thoughts, only to find that those boundaries still exist. People don't like them. The dynamics of "bad things will happen if you offend people in this room" have not changed. The room just got bigger. There are consequences again. And it is so unfair to them. They earned power fairly, and they didn't think they did anything wrong. Nothing warned them that there would be consequences (except for the entire human experience). Boohoo. They were canceled.
This is not to defend every outcry from the peanut gallery as if it were the voice of Justice. Nor do I believe that heavy-handed organizations, ready to strike off any limb that brings them scandals are doing a social service. But the Harper letter asks us to redefine the social landscape so as to completely remove the possibility of consequence. "We will police ourselves," they promise, while the weight of your power is on the table. That is not a lie, just an impossible promise. In the year 2020, with right-wing fascism losing its game of strip poker against the frailty of human memory, these adorably naive Important Persons sincerely wrote the phrase "The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion." They generously hand down these instructions as an alternative to standing agog and drooling, which must have been what we were doing before.
They talk about professional consequences as if it was a new thing. It's not. The existence of this social dynamic, this fundamentally human thing, is regarded by the flag-bearers of cancel culture as "dogma and coercion". It is unfair of us to punish inaudible racist stance. Society is so deeply impoverished because we are not allowed to say muttered slurs. What will the writers write, what will the painters paint, what will the artists' hearts ache for if not obvious propaganda? They demand that their speech be defended, and do not have the bravery to repeat what they said. Not even a hint.
I regard their position as a misunderstanding of the role of the individual within society. We are always stuck in a room with our boss, or our peers, or strangers whose knowing gazes pass silent judgment for unremarked expectations of conduct. That heavy social weight that is upon all of us; that weight is lightest and most unfelt by these complainers. They didn't realize that you were in the room, and now they want you to either shut up or leave. While also of course, remaining loyally subscribed.