What, exactly, is America's free speech problem, and what can we do about it?
I'm not sure this analysis gets to the heart of the problem, and I think it understates the power of pressure coming from the Left. (I'm writing as a sort of vanilla liberal.)
The main issues related to Right and Left are not really comparable. The Right is much more actively trying to use the force of government to restrict speech (banning books, gagging teachers, and so forth). In this sense, I think the greatest political threat comes from the Right, since court confirmation of these laws seems to me a significant encroachment on the First Amendment. I don't regard this as "cancel culture": it's simple state censorship.
I also think that when it comes to issues of how Left and Right relate to those on "the other side," there's not much of a difference (with the exception of shouting down speakers, which the Left has practiced for a long time, and which has done a great job of alienating non-political people and growing the GOP). I live in a Red state, and I've always had to watch my words around conservatives--polarization has heightened the degree, but it's not a qualitative change, and I think the same would be true for a conservative in a solid Blue state. I don't think this is what "cancel culture" means.
Progressives have built on traditional liberal issues of freedom from discrimination and tolerance of non-traditional self-expression. They have intensified attention to these, reconfigured some key concepts and terms, and developed an increasingly Manichaean view of American society that draws a moral distinction between those who adopt these new concepts and those who don't, regardless of where people may stand on the traditional political spectrum. Liberals who don't meet the standards of these heightened views are viewed as collaborators with conservatives and the far Right (somehow, Ibram Kendi's very good book against stereotyping has gotten popularly boiled down to this very bad form of stereotyping--I think Kendi has helped that along). I think the liberals who feel more constrained in their speech today are primarily biting their tongues around others on the Left. I don't think the parallel issue on the right (Trumpists, Alt-Right, QAnon, Militias vs. "RINOs") is a comparable dynamic. (At least not yet.) I suspect this is because the argument on the Left concerns dedication to universalistic ethics (which is why Anne Applebaum refers to progressives as "puritans"), while the argument on the Right concerns various forms of nationalism ("originalist" libertarian, race-based, worse), and is more about being a "patriot" than being moral.
Although conservatives complain about "cancel culture," I think they are not often its targets--they're making political hay out of a principally internal tension on the Left. (Social media company actions against Donald Trump and others is not "cancel culture," it's policy enforcement.) When prominent writers decry cancel culture, they are not usually inspired out of concern for people like Mel Gibson; they're concerned for people like J.K. Rowling, whose views on the complex terrain of trans issues seem basically to have redefined her as MINO (Moral in Name Only).
I think the behavior that gave rise to the concept of "cancel culture" is socially toxic, but I also think it's a phase that will pass, just as an earlier version, in the pre-virtual days of the '60s, wore itself out. Until the current phase winds down, it will continue to bestow its gifts upon the Republican Party and the extremists with whom that party is content to travel, just as '60s Left liberals like me did in our day.
Good article. Your articles about free speech/cancel culture, as well as the recent ken White substack post about the NY times piece are pretty much exactly how I feel about this whole...shit show of a discourse.