Free Speech: The Intellectual and Psychological Air We Breathe

An international student from China who gave the student address at the University of Maryland’s commencement ceremony is facing a backlash in her home country after her speech went viral.

Yang Shuping, an international student from China, praised the United States’ commitment to free expression in the student address at the University of Maryland’s 2017 commencement ceremony. She claimed that she will be “forever grateful” for the “fresh air of free speech” that exists in the United States as opposed to China.

“People often ask me: ‘Why did you come to the University of Maryland?’” she said in her speech. “I always answer: Fresh air.”

“I grew up in a city in China where I had to wear a face mask every time I went outside, otherwise I might get sick. However, the moment I inhaled and exhaled outside the airport, I felt free,” she said, referring to her arrival in the United States.

“I would soon feel another kind of fresh air for which I will be forever grateful. The fresh air of free speech. Democracy and free speech should not be taken for granted. Democracy and freedom are the fresh air that is worth fighting for.”

Beautifully and poetically put. And of course her Communist rulers in China hate her for it. Because they know she’s right, and they don’t want others to get the idea of how right she is.

Democracy, by the way, is not what protects freedom of speech. A majority can vote away freedom of speech at any time, and often will. The key to free speech is the principle that each and every individual is sovereign over his or her life, including the right to think and speak freely. No majority may ever tame or control this fact.

Sadly, free speech is under attack in America as never before. America is still far better than a place like China for free speech. But the idea gaining ground in America is the same one dominant in places like China, the idea that free speech does not include “hate speech” or offensive speech. Who defines hate speech? Governments and authorities in places like China organize themselves to define what’s unacceptable speech. They don’t openly call it restraint or restriction. People would never accept that. Instead, they call it promoting acceptable speech that’s healthy and “non-toxic” for the community. Whose community? The community of those who rule.

Americans are letting it happen here. They bow down to pressure to be politically correct, even in daily life with friends and associates. They won’t say things that they believe will be controversial or get them in trouble with others. The psychological conditions are ripe for oppression of free speech in America, despite our First Amendment. Because once the psychological factors are in place, it’s far easier for an authoritarian or totalitarian group to take over and enforce the prevailing mindset in law. So long as the people remain sheepish and humble, it’s only a matter of time.

Donald Trump’s surprise election in 2016 showed some indication that political correctness and the ideological-psychological attitude of self-repression had not gained as much ground as many had thought. But you have seen the reactions since. The left — academia, media, Democratic Party — has gone full totalitarian in attitude. You better believe that once back in power, they will impose their will. I don’t see any real difference between the reactions of America’s Democratic leftists/mainstream media to Donald Trump and the Communist Party back in China. Instead of defending what they believe to be the right ideas, they double down on those of us who utter what they consider the wrong ones.

How ironic. This brave and insightful Chinese graduate from the University of Maryland nails the psychological essence of free speech, in terms of what it feels like in contrast to a totalitarian country. Yet the very country where she feels the fresh air is now becoming more and more like the place she left. It just goes to show how basic, precious liberties are never a guarantee. A democratic republic respectful of individual rights — of which free speech is the most precious — will always have to be fought for. People must believe they’re entitled to be free, if they’re to remain free. Communists abroad and at home — or their equivalents by any other name, including “progressive” — will always be there to restrain liberty. We have to maintain and always find the strength to fight back for that breath of fresh air.

“Use it or lose it”. Nowhere does that phrase apply more than with freedom of speech.

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