Teresa Bejan is an author and an associate professor of political science at Oxford University. Today Prof. Bejan wrote a really interesting Twitter thread on the nature of free speech and how some of the people who deny the existence of cancel culture seem to be missing the point. I think the key point here is that the opposite of free speech it’s just silence but “unfree” speech which is socially compelled. It’s not enough to have the legal right to speak if you fear for your job or your safety for doing so.

By this point, what Bejan is describing should sound pretty relevant and familiar.

Rowling hasn’t been cancelled (yet) but that’s only because of where she started, i.e. a very wealthy author beloved around the world. Any lesser person making similar statements would have been destroyed by now.

And this is really the core of Bejan’s take. People have the right to disagree vocally with Rowling or decide not to buy her books in future. However, cancel culture goes beyond those kinds of individual decisions and attempts to creates a campaign designed to shame and punish people by as large a group as can be assembled online. The goal isn’t an exchange of ideas. The goal is to make someone pay as heavy a price as possible for their stated views. And as Bejan suggests, that can include all kinds of social abuse which is one reason Twitter can be a particularly ugly place for outspoken women online.

The impact of this behavior isn’t just on the targets it’s also on everyone else who is watching the public spectacle. This is how you create the socially conditioned world of unfree speech she described earlier. You teach people they need to self-censor or else.

I don’t want to put words in her mouth but my take on her view is this: Anyone claiming that free speech can’t be threatened unless actual government censorship is involved is sidestepping the issue. So is anyone claiming that free speech hasn’t been threatened so long as Rowling, Weiss, etc. are still free to speak.

The existence of the First Amendment is not enough to create a culture of free speech. That depends on the commitment of millions of people to accept the idea that there is social value even in disagreeable speech. That’s a point that many conservative speakers have been trying to make by showing up at progressive college campuses. But unfortunately it’s an idea that far-left protesters and some significant portion of the journalists at the New York Times no longer really believe.

If you’re interested in hearing more from Bejan, she has a book out called Mere Civility.