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The self-evident banner
On communications theory, cheering for the home team, and the protest banner in Beijing that should have been too self-evident to take down
The message is so mild to the ears of anyone living under the protection of the First Amendment that it sounds almost quaint: "No Covid test, we want to eat. No restrictions, we want freedom. No lies, we want dignity. No Cultural Revolution, we want reform. No leaders, we want votes. By not being slaves, we can be citizens."
■ But communication theorists say that we have to consider the sender, the receiver, the message, the medium, and the context. In its real context, the message goes from quaint to revolutionary. This demand for freedom and dignity was printed on a banner hung from a bridge in Beijing. What would have been a modest petition for a redress of grievances in the United States is a far bolder thing to assert under authoritarianism.
■ No one should ever underestimate the ability of people to understand when they are being mistreated. Values we label today as "classical liberalism" -- government by the consent of the governed, equality before the law, freedom of speech, the right to complain to the authorities -- aren't exclusive to the people who had the privilege of reading about them or learning about them from civics class.
■ They belong to everyone. They are natural rights. They are principles so natural that even people who have been kept in the dark about where they have been written down still have a rightful claim to them. Not only a claim, but also a reasonable expectation that they will organically uncover them even without any help.
■ Those of us with the privilege of living under principled, rules-based, democratic self-government should cheer for our fellow human beings when they assert themselves and their natural rights. Every one of us should cheer for them like we would cheer for the varsity squad at our alma mater, and for the same reason, too: Because they are like us, they are on our team, and they are engaged in a fight more hazardous than what anyone encounters watching from afar.
■ Seeing others as our equals -- specifically, as moral equals who are thoroughly capable of arriving at conclusions about human dignity that are compatible with our own, even if their libraries are deprived of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and John Locke -- helps to reinforce the understanding that those of us who have our freedoms guaranteed by law need to put ourselves in the shoes of those who don't.
■ Our thoughts should center on how we can best help them to reach their rightful state. We need to trust that those things the Declaration of Independence declares "self-evident" really are. Believing in the self-evidence of those human truths is an essential step towards recognizing the fundamental equality of people who just haven't been as fortunate as we have been thus far.