The Power of Speech

While being tortured by finals and an endless to-do list, a political controversy “close-to-home” plauged my Chinese social media feeds. Netizens argued back and forth, missing each other’s point in cross fire. I watched closely, in silence, and shuddered at the power of speech to spread anger, division, and even hatred.

It all started with a speech, a speech that may have faded into history like the hundreds of thousands of speeches delivered every year. But people were too offended to let it go.

Instead, offended audience members protested over social media, organizing campaigns to denounce the content of the speech. The video and transcript of the speech spread. More people got angry and joined the fight. The media picked up the news. All the Weibo and Weixin media accounts took it to be a hot issue and reposted the contents.

Even more anger spread. The comments turned vicious. Both sides escalated offenses. One side decried the speech for lying and sacrificing one’s homeland for personal gain. The other side praised the speech for its “bravery” and supported its message promoting free speech. One side turned to ad hominem attacks and publicize the “perpetrator’s” personal information. The other side escalated the matter to national politics and claimed the incident to be realtime proof that freedom of speech is threatened.

The person who delivered the speech cleared out all social media accounts and posted a public apology. Neither side, however, seemd satisfied. One side called for more investigation into the matter. The other side portrayed the person as a victim of internet violence.

For a time, the discussion was only a debate within the Chinese cyberspace. But soon, the controversy spilled over to English media. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, NPR, one by one the major news outlets reported on the story. Great. Now everyone knew.

Throughout the back-and-forths between the two camps, it was striking to me how easily people were prompted to vehement attacks. Why is it that people could deliver such nasty attacks toward one another? Does free speech protect the expression of such sentiments, if they are sincerely felt? Should sensitivity to internet violence curtail such commentary? Should one not be responsible for the results of one’s public speech?

More dangerously, I noticed that both sides were literally talking past one another, not addressing the points the other side brought up and instead twisting the discussion to fit their own needs. This is not a real discussion. This is an incident hijacked by two camps with preconceived opinions. All they needed was a flicker to burst into a consuming flame.

Throughout all these debates and growingly pointless battles of insults, some key points were lost.

First, the main contention against the speech was its contested factuality. People were angry because they believed it to be spreading false stereotypes. Did the person really feel that way? Or were the vignettes simply fabrications that suited the general expectation? Should lies be protected under free speech? The other side, including the official statement issued on this matter, supported the speech on the level of principle. However, no one seems to be challenging the right to free speech in the first place.

Second is a question of national pride. If one were to love one’s country, would one use its weaknesses (let’s assume these are real for now) to contrast another country’s strength? Would one propagate negative propaganda against one’s homeland and confirm others’ skewed assumptions? If one were to protect one’s motherland and edits one’s speech, would that be considered censorship and suppression of the right to free speech? What kind of responsibility does one owe to one’s country? What would it mean nowadays to be “un-American”? What about one’s loyalty to one’s institution? The speech’s main function was, after all, to praise the institution.

Third is a issue of political incitement. If the content of the speech genuinely reflects the writer’s thoughts, what is the objective? It seems to say: not everyone can enjoy freedom, democracy, and fresh air, don’t take it for granted. Is it trying to encourage action? What type of action? If Americans are all so used to freedom and democracy already, would the point to incite them to promote such principles to countries that cannot enjoy such “luxuries”? Would its point be to draw attention to the “suppression” back home? If the premisde is that there are also threats to freedom and democracy in America, would it be encouraging more incidents like the LA riots? 60 people died during those violent confrontations. With the institution-in-question’s recent encounters with hate speech and hate crimes, is the timing intentional? Would the speechwriter be willing to take on that kind of responsibility?

But no matter how debates pan out, China has lost another P.R. battle. Both inside and outside the country, the incident is being framed as an example of internet violence, intolerance, and extreme nationalism. The portrayal of China in the speech is sinking even deeper into the mass consciousness. Given this result, I wonder if it was wise to protest against it publicly in the first place?

In truth, I am fearful to take sides on controversial political matters like this. Especially when I have access to such visible platforms as forums at the United Nations. Every word I utter can reflect upon my school, my countries, my people. I hope individuals will not be frightened to take the spotlight in the future because of fear of repurcussions. Speech can carry a lot of power; we just have to wield it carefully and purposefully.

However much the speech gets lambasted, one line rings true: Our voices do matter.

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