Monday, November 15, 2010

Culture: Freedom and Fear

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Nobel laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi's sentence of house arrest in Burma, also known as Myanmar, ended on Saturday. She was allowed to leave her residence for the first time in more than seven years. In some of her early statements, she noted that she had actually been more free than many others in her country while under house arrest, as she had little to fear. This view of the concept of freedom is one that I believe to be more meaningful than others I have encountered.

The linking of freedom and fear is hardly a new idea from Aung Sang Suu Kyi. Arguably her most famous speech is the "Freedom From Fear" speech from two decades ago, in which she goes on at length about the power of fearlessness. Yet, the concept of being free while under house arrest, while others that were not legally restricted were fearful and thus not truly free, is a further extension of that famous speech and even harder to grasp for most westerners.

In the west, the dictionary definition of freedom is usually something to the effect of "the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint." That's normally taken to mean having no government restriction on speech and activities. If there's no legal restrictions on one activities, then one is free. I've long thought the concept has become especially contorted in the United States, where freedom has been equated with the ability to spend money, as if money were a direct proxy for ideas, and people seem very willing to give up legal freedoms in order to feel safer through things like the Patriot Act.

Yet, the words of the definition fit Aung San Suu Kyi's viewpoint. If one is in fear, then there is a hindrance and a restraint on their lives, and thus there is not freedom. What doesn't seem to be accounted for in North America is that there are potential sources of fear besides the government. Ask a homosexual individual in many (but not all) societal contexts, and they'll say that they do fear violence by bigoted individuals, and thus temper their behavior--their behavior is restrained, and thus they are not truly free. Minorities of all kinds, based on skin color, education, or even interest in targeted activities like protesting or photography, feel like they have to restrain their behavior, not going certain places for fear of their own safety. They are not truly free.

People in the United States seem obsessed with the idea that they need to protect their freedoms from a socialist government like that found in Western Europe or Canada. Yet, I personally feel less restrained in my behavior walking the streets of Zurich, Switzerland or even Montreal, Quebec than in Boston, Massachusetts or Sacramento, California because it seems to me there is less to fear in terms of random crime and being questioned or persecuted about one's activities or demeanor. If I were a visible minority, it would probably be an even more profound difference.

Anyone that has had similar feelings likely understands what Aung Sang Suu Kyi was saying. Nobody should need to be under house arrest to reduce their fearfulness, but pretending that money is freedom is not a superior illusion. No society I have encountered lacks issues to work on, but those that have gone farther in reducing the reasons for all their residents to be fearful have gone farther in promoting freedom than those that simply minimize symbolic intrusions.

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