Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Aung Sang Suu Kyi on freedom from fear

The Metta Center recently tweeted this quote from Aung Sang Suu Kyi: "The only real prison is fear. And the only real freedom is freedom from fear." I question this. One way of taking her statement is that she is speaking of her own political reality: for her, her followers, etc., the "only" thing really is the prison of fear. This is, of course, to be distinguished from the prisons she has faced and endured, prisons as such and her own home being made into her prison. And to emphasize a freedom from fear is all to the good, as far as it goes. But how far does it go?

Part of the prison of politics is that it freezes philosophy. Philosophy, above all, is given to question and to include. To ask "what is a prison" is to look at all sorts of prisons, and to say, "this, too, is a prison", often against the urgency of a political agenda that is not so interested in such elaborate and free enumerations and explications. It is not so hard to start listing possible prisons. Likewise, it is possible to work to go through those various examples and draw from them a kind of average or "mean", which is the meaning of the word, what we mean by "prison". This leads to a kind of philosophical definition, something deeper and more essential than a dictionary definition. This philosophical definition aims at giving to language the matter of the essence of the thing in question. Aung Sang Suu Kyi's statement is a reduction: she reduces imprison to one thing: fear. But I won't spend much time in the philosophical moment to list the vast, nearly innumerable things that imprison us, only one of which is fear. Yet, it may be as well that it is one of the effects of fear that it forces reduction, but that only begs the question as to what it means to say "freedom from fear". For this would imply that the freedom from fear would be a freedom from letting fear give us to define that which imprisons as fear only.

I don't raise this question out of disrespect for the truly "noble", in the best sense of the word, Aung Sang Suu Kyi. Nor is it my intention to disrupt our respect for her and her people's struggle, by any means. But I am motivated by several perceptions or moments of understanding: that there are all sorts of prisons and that the reduction to fear as such is itself, potentially, a kind of prison. But also that to understand other meanings of "imprisonment" is of importance precisely to the causes of people like Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her friends in protest for the sake of democracy while in the grips of tyranny.

To realize that there are many prisons, prisons of inability, of disability, of lacks of skills, of lacks of means, of lacks of thought, of lacks of freedom, is to realize as well that there are countless doors that can open to vast ranges of empowerment that, each in its own way, can contribute to the struggle for freedom. The Arab Awakening has begun due to one chief element that is not a freedom from fear, even if imprisonment has been a constant threat in the tyranny of the Arab dictatorships. The Internet is the chief game changer in the region. It has surged in use throughout populations not through some transcendence of fear, although that has surely played a role at times. Its progress has been based on technology. The sheer engagement with the Internet has opened minds to a new reality and realized historical progress to the point that the very idea of the dictator as such has become obviously wrong to more and more of the masses.

In this regard, then, the democracy movement in Myanmar would do well to emphasize not simply the fear that enables some of the imprisonment taking place, with this taking place in a monolithic struggle, however good and noble, but the sheer and simple distribution of the Internet. As the grips of tyranny tighten, of course, fear and actual detention, and the latter is not itself fear but actual imprisonment which has its own, irreducible effects, become a kind of foremost problem, to be sure. But just as fear imprisons, one such imprisonment is the idea that fear itself is the sole and primary prison. It is, in a way, for those in the grips of the most extreme power and enforcement, which is surely the case in Myanmar. But even so, the hope for the democracy movement may lie in the subtle and incremental extension of the Internet, and by this one really refers to freer thought and the simple fact of a "clickable reality" rather than following the prescribed thought of the dictatorial state. The grim struggle for freedom can itself disable this other, more everyday and even joyous work of releasing, step by step, the Internet to the region. It is not reducible to an overcoming of fear, while the famous and often necessary struggle against fear itself can, unfortunately, render us blind to the nature of change and what is required for it. Is Aung Sang Suu Kyi still in prison?