There is a woman who sits alone in her house, by a lake. She has done so for 14 years. A prisoner, surrounded by armed guards, separated from family, friends and colleagues, she is isolated.
There is also a man who sits alone in a damp, cold and dim cell. Fed grim food and given little to stimulate his mind other than a few books that are agreed by the prison authorities. He has 10 more years to serve.
She is Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma's democracy movement, he is Liu Xiaobo, one of China's leading dissidents. They are the only Nobel Peace Prize winners who are prisoners of the regimes under which they live.
Two individuals, seemingly isolated, so small in the face of the massive machinery of power that attempts to contain them. However, they, like millions of others around the world, understand a simple truth -- the immense power of a question mark. Indeed, their detention is confirmation of its potency.
Power often needs to create illusion for people either to fear or to believe in. In many cases, it holds the system together. Those who openly question puncture the illusion and become a very real threat, even to a seemingly invincible state apparatus. As Vaclav Havel, former dissident and President of the Czech Republic said, those who shout the Emperor is naked, break "the exalted façade of the system" and expose its "real, base foundations of power." They enable us all to "peer behind the curtain."
There are many ingenious ways that human beings have found to question and defy the demand for conformity. In Burma during the year of 2007, when peaceful protests by Buddhist monks were violently crushed by the country's military rulers, an unusual group of protesters emerged. Too dangerous for humans to protest, the stray mutts of Rangoon were seen running around with portraits of the dictator Than Shwe around their necks -- a powerful insult. Onlookers laughed as Burmese troops chased the dogs to remove the portraits. In Poland during the early 1980s, opponents of the communist regime called for a boycott of the government's hate-filled TV news. However, who would know you weren't watching TV? In the small town of Swidnik, everyone decided to go for a walk during the 7:30 p.m. news. To make things clear, they took their wheelbarrows and baby strollers, put their TVs in them, and took the TVs for a walk, too. In military-ruled Uruguay in the 1970s, the national anthem, sung before football matches, used to be mumbled quietly by the large crowds of fans. This was until they came to one line which they roared out, "may tyrants tremble," then resumed the unenthusiastic mumbling. There was nothing the authorities could do.
These small acts of resistance may seem insignificant, but they remind people that they are not alone, and help to build confidence in resistance.
Those who dream the unimaginable are so often dismissed as not living in the 'real' world. Except that our world starts with our thoughts and the decisions and actions that come from them. Aung San Suu Kyi and Liu Xiabo are thinking of a new reality. Just as those who removed apartheid in South Africa, the dictatorships of Latin America and Soviet communism in Eastern Europe -- all thought the unimaginable.
Whether by writers or industrial workers, TV sets or stray dogs, the powerful use of a question
mark, remains one of the greatest weapons we have against an unjust status quo. As an Iranian song goes, "Whose hand but yours and mine can pull back these curtains."
Follow John Jackson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/johnjackson5