#ThoughtCrime, a Brief Introduction
(Notes from Andrew’s Bit)
“Thoughtcrime” is an important concept popularized in George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel 1984. A prototype of thoughtcrime, however, is to be found in G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908). The novel follows Gabriel Syme, a poet and philosophical policeman who infiltrates an anarchist group’s inner circle only to find that there are no anarchists. He encounters the concept when he is recruited by the “man in blue”, who explains the philosophical policemen.
“The work of the philosophical policeman,” replied the man in blue, “is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime. We were only just in time to prevent the assassination at Hartlepool, and that was entirely due to the fact that our Mr. Wilks (a smart young fellow) thoroughly understood a triolet.”
Orwell’s 1984 has philosophical policemen of its own, known as the Thought Police. In the novel the Thought Police can monitor anyone through the telescreens, two-way televisions that are in every room of every home and office and around every corner. In this way the Thought Police can monitor all crimethink, Orwell’s equivalent of the thought crime.
I won’t go into 1984. You should read the book.
Back to the Thought Police:
“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”
Besides the thought police, Orwell expands on the concept of thoughtcrime in two important aspects.
First is the introduction of Big Brother. “Big Brother is watching you” is the quotation that probably everyone knows, even those who have not read the novel. Big Brother is the benevolent face of the Party, which names Big Brother as its founder and leader, and yet from the novel it is clear that Big Brother does not exist, nor probably ever existed. Nonetheless, his face is to be found everywhere, on posters and on the screen. In this way Big Brother is much the embodiment of Orwell’s concept of doublethink, the simultaneous belief in two contradictory things, a necessary construct in a world full of contradiction.
And, indeed, you are being watched. Perhaps not all the time, but there is no telling when someone will be on the other side of the telescreen. Big Brother is therefore tied into the concept of the Panopticon, a theoretical prison devised by Samuel and Jeremy Bentham, and mostly elaborated upon by the latter. The Panopticon consists of two circular, concentric buildings. Prisoners are kept in the outer building, whose inner walls are made entirely of glass, so that a relatively small number of prison guards in the inner building, called the inspection house, can see everything that any given prisoner is doing at any given moment. Theoretically the inspection house could be occupied by one single guard. There is no way that a single guard could watch all of the inmates all the time, but as with the telescreens of 1984, the key to the Panopticon is that none of the inmates can know if they are being watched.
The other aspect that Orwell introduces is Newspeak, a variant of the English language created by the Party in order to control the minds of members of the Party. If you don’t speak the Newspeak then you may already have committed a thoughtcrime. A key characteristic of Newspeak is that its vocabulary is constantly changing, meaning what might have been acceptable to say one day is a thoughtcrime the next. The creators of Newspeak purposefully eliminate all meaning in the language by cutting out synonyms and antonyms, or replacing words such as “bad” with “ungood”, “better” with “gooder”, and so on.
By combining Big Brother, Newspeak and the Thought Police, Orwell paints a grim and sinister totalitarian landscape controlled through brute force, manipulation and surveillance. As mentioned, the presence of Big Brother’s face everywhere, and the question whether he really exists or not, is the essence of doublethink, reinforced by the all-seeing telescreens, which confine your actions in the external, physical world. Newspeak implants Big Brother into your very mind, a precursor perhaps to the film Inception, so that you are even constrained in the internal, psychological world.
How realistic is 1984?
In other words, what relevance does thoughtcrime have in the real world?
At home and abroad there is disproportionate surveillance of leftist and civil rights activist movements. Forget the NSA and mass surveillance for a moment, and try to put yourselves in the shoes of people who are continuously spied upon and arrested on the basis of their beliefs that we should see and treat each other as equals, or just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Police helicopters dragnet smartphone data as they fly over colored communities. Police and federal agents alike infiltrate peaceful environmentalist organisations, posing as activists and then attempting (and failing) to incite violence at protests and demonstrations. Police in New York City actively seek out poor, disadvantaged Muslim men, promise them money to carry out a crime, supply them with fake weapons, and then arrest the men if they agree.
Meanwhile, armed all-white militias take over Federal property, police and gun-carrying civilians kill black people en masse, and harass and jail countless other black and brown people for minor violations or made-up reasons.
For this reason I argue that the concept of thoughtcrime nowadays goes deeper than criminal acts or so-called criminal speech. Certain ways of thinking and perceived intentions are deemed criminal in our society, but it is not just the police deem them so. “Black lives matter”, a simple phrase pointing out the systemic violence towards black Americans in the United States, is a good example of actually existing thoughtcrime. Racists in the US, both cops and in the general public, emphasize “All lives matter”, arguing that “Black lives matter” is an attempt by blacks to put themselves in a privileged position over whites. “Black lives matter”, in other words, is is perceived as just another subversive message in a long line of subversive messages originating from the black community. Things like “I have a dream,” or “You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom”. Subversive not because these people seek privilege and entitlements over whites, but rather because they dare to demand equality and justice while being black. In the real world thoughtcrime is, in my mind, much more sinister than in 1984 or The Man Who Was Thursday; in the United States you commit a thought crime when you have the audacity to be a free thinker with black skin.
Elsewhere in the world — notably Turkey, Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, each military allies to the United States — journalists and activists are locked up, beaten and even beheaded for daring to voice opposition to state oppression. What are we to make of it that these are our allies, that Saudi Arabia — an autocracy that recently executed 70 criminals, among them mere dissidents — is a chair of the UN Human Rights Council, that Turkey is strengthening ties to the EU while conducting a bombing campaign against Kurdish civilians, that Egypt is the single largest detainer of journalists and continually receives billions of dollars of military aid from the US, and that since 2011 Bahrain, home of the United States’ fifth fleet, has with the help of Saudi Arabia battled against its own citizens in order to quell what would have been its own addition to the Arab Spring?
Let us remember that the things for which journalists and activists in these countries are punished are the very things that the UN Charter for Human Rights and the United States constitution explicitly protect. Again, in the real world a thoughtcrime is worse than in 1984, for it is none other than the belief that you are actually allowed to exercise the rights that you are supposedly guaranteed.
(Sources from Eddy’s Bit)