The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







In George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four the government attempts to control not only the speech and actions, but also the thoughts of its subjects, labelling unapproved thoughts with the term thoughtcrime or, in Newspeak, "crimethink".

In the book, Winston Smith, the main character, writes in his diary:

Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime IS death.

He also makes remarks to the effect that "Thoughtcrime is the only crime that matters".


Thought Police

The Thought Police (thinkpol in Newspeak) were the secret police of the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four whose job it was to uncover and punish thoughtcrime. The Thought Police used psychology and omnipresent surveillance to find and eliminate members of society who were capable of the mere thought of challenging ruling authority.

Orwell's Thought Police and their pursuit of thoughtcrime was based on the methods used by the totalitarian states and competing ideologies of the 20th century. It also had much to do with Orwell's own "power of facing unpleasant facts", as he called it, and his willingness to criticise prevailing ideas which brought him into conflict with others and their "smelly little orthodoxies". Although Orwell described himself as a democratic socialist, many other socialists (especially those who supported the communist branch of socialism) thought that his criticism of the Soviet Union under Stalin damaged the socialist cause.

The term "Thought Police", by extension, has come to refer to real or perceived enforcement of ideological correctness in any modern or historical contexts.

Religious thoughtcrime

The Christian concept of Internal sin, analogous to "thoughtcrime", became common in the mid 16th century, largely as a reaction against the protestant reformation.

Soviet-era abuses

In the Soviet era, the USSR frequently used psychiatry as a weapon against dissidents. The diagnosis of sluggishly progressing schizophrenia was used to commit many dissidents to psychiatric hospitals (called Psikhushka in Russia), where they were then treated aggressively with psychoactive drugs.

Modern accusations

Some people believe governments may be currently enforcing laws that implement a de-facto kind of thoughtcrime legislation. Prime among the laws accused of this are hate crime laws that mandate harsher penalties for people who commit crimes out of racism or bigotry. Opponents of those laws claim that all crimes are committed out of an element of hate, so that defining a specific subset of laws as 'hate crimes' is meaningless, and that these very laws imply infact the inequality before the Law of citizens ("castes" of special sub-groups benefiting from privileges other groups do not, e.g. ethnic or sexual "minorities") and that the government should outlaw actions, not thoughts or states of mind. Proponents argue that hate crime legislation protects all groups, be they majority or minority (crimes against majority groups have in fact been prosecuted as hate crimes), and that the state of mind of the perpetrator has always influenced the punishment for crimes. They further argue that hate crime laws are the only way to ensure proper punishment of those who commit egregious crimes in the name of prejudice or bigotry. The debate remains open to this day.

An extremely controversial example of borderline thoughtcrime behaviour is Censored page. In 2000 the court in Lafayette, Indiana banned a convicted child sex offender from all city parks, which included a zoo, and a golf course after he admitted to his psychologist that he had sexual fantasies about children he saw playing in the park. The man sued, and a U.S. District Judge ruled in favor of the city. A three-member panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed the decision 2-1, finding that he can not be punished for what he thinks. Critics, on the other hand, argue that the growing tolerance for Censored page leads to cultural tolerance for heinous criminal acts such as child molestation, and that the threat posed by these individuals (notably to children) warrants their surveillance. [1]

Laws providing for involuntary commitment may also be open to accusations that they provide for thoughtcrimes, since those who have committed no crime may be denied their liberty simply because a court finds that they are a "danger to self or others", yet others who may really be a "danger to self or others" may remain free so long as they have not been convicted of a crime. Thus it is purely on the basis of the thought or mood of the involuntarily committed person that he is deprived of freedom.

In the United Kingdom, legislation to enable the proactive detainment of people considered to have personality disorders who have not committed a crime has actively been considered by the British government. This has caused great concern among human rights activists.

Technology and thoughtcrime

Just as technology played a significant part in the detection of thoughtcrime in Nineteen Eighty-Four — with the ubiquitous telescreens which could inform, disinform and monitor the population — a number of technologies have been developed to try to detect thought and emotional states. Networks of CCTV cameras are being connected to image-recognition software that (although currently ineffective) intends to detect possible wrongdoers by looking for signs of anxiety. Other technologies range from lie detectors, the penile plethysmograph which was used to try to detect "homosexual or pedophile thoughts", and on to more modern attempts to use magnetic resonance imaging to try to detect brain chemical activity supposedly corresponding to memory or thoughts. All of these technologies have been proposed at one time or another as a way of detecting "bad thoughts".

See also

Further reading

  • Kretzmer, David and Kershman, Hazan Francine (Eds.) (2000) "Freedom of Speech and Incitement Against Democracy". Kluwer Law International, The Hague, Netherlands. ISBN 90-411-1341-X

External links

Last updated: 05-06-2005 14:37:01