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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Panopticon

"What is that?" I asked and Little Boy explained the photograph above to me. It was a prison used to house Vietnamese resistance fighters both male and female, following the design by Jeremy Bentham. This prison design allowed a single guard to watch over many prisoners, whilst remaining himself unseen in the tower that can look out... but none outside can look in. Little Boy encountered the notion when reading Michel Foucault's "Discipline and Punishment" and he was vastly intrigued to see a real Panopticon. Michel Foucault was a well-known French philosopher and... oh dear... please don't ask me to explain his writings. Little Boy's interest in the esoteric surpasses even mine.

As a psychologist, sensitive to psychological pain, the picture above of a Panopticon chills my blood. To me, it is the ultimate suppression of personal freedom. Your every movement is watched and controlled by a single person. You have absolutely no freedom... except that which is in your mind and your spirit. And that I suppose is what won Vietnam back for the Vietnamese. The French could imprison their bodies... torture... and suppress every physical freedom, but the French could not enslave the minds and spirits of these short, slight and ever smiling people.

When Little Boy first explained Michel Foucault to me, I wasn't really listening. I'm quite the expert at making appropriate noises that keep Little Boy talking about whatever interests him... but since many of his interests delve deep and run into the esoteric, I've found it less painful to tune him out whilst feigning interest. You have to feign interest right through to the end. Have to. Otherwise, Little Boy will REPEAT his lecture to you. Michel Foucault... French philosopher... SNORE!! All he does is THINK. Michel Foucault is a philosopher, not a man of action. Not the kind that Petunia admires from the roots of her peasant soul. But when I saw the Panopticon, it occurred to me that thinking is the beginning of everything isn't it? 

Watch your thoughts for they become words. Watch your words for they become actions. Watch your actions for they become habits. Watch your habits for they become your character. Watch your character for it becomes your destiny. What we think... we become. 
- Margaret Thatcher - 

So I stood there staring at the picture of the Panopticon and shuddered at the physical form of Michel Foucault’s thinking. It had BECOME France’s fulfilled destiny as The Oppressor of Vietnam. What is worrisome is that Little Boy was given Michel Foucault to read when attending lectures at the university. I was pleased when Little Boy concluded his short exposé to me by saying that he thought the man quite sick in the head for recommending the use of Panopticon Principles upon school children and company employees.

Happily, the Vietnamese people had thinking of their own. A thought expressed by a slip of a girl with an indomitable spirit is etched in the collective memory of the Vietnamese and honoured in the same way people honour dead heroes and spirit banners. When sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment for subversive activity, the young lady in the photo below said…

 Je ne crains que votre régime ne dure les 20 vingt ans de mon incarcération. 

 I fear only that your regime will not last longer than the 20 years of my imprisonment. 

At the time they were uttered, these words fired the hopes and hardened the will of the Vietnamese people. It gave them a spirit banner to follow. Men, women and children fought to make her words reality… and thus it was that those words defined Vietnam’s destiny as a free people. By the way, don't make the mistake of asking your tour guide about buying Vietnamese property and land. Something in the eyes will look offended and he will politely tell you that unless you hold a Vietnamese passport, you can have no share of this country's land. The wounds are still raw of having others own the land the Vietnamese consider their birthright.

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