This post started out as a comment responding to Fenzel’s response to my last post – or rather, to some of the conversations surrounding that conversation. Once it hit the 1,000 word mark and acquired a table, I realized that a comment thread was the wrong place for it (if only because I’d already used up all the time that I’d budgeted for Overthinking this week, and it’s my turn to post about something). Specifically, I’m responding to this:
“…expunging all objectionable images through social condemnation and censorship until an idea we don’t like simply doesn’t exist anymore sounds like a great idea when it’s your idea, but there are some pretty huge, massive, ginormous moral problems with anybody systematically doing this.”
The specific words again are Fenzel’s, from the comment thread, but they’re really just a convenient expression of an idea that’s pretty widespread. Censorship is bad, yeah? And stamping out ideas is probably even worse. People who try to control what you think are not mere censors, who after all only care what you say. The term that’s sometimes used is “thought police” — although none of our writers or commenters went there, which is just as well, because it’s such a loaded term that it’s almost a mini-Godwin event, signaling that rational debate is over and a shouting match can begin. Terminology aside, though, controlling what people say and think is not moral. This is just common sense.
And yet like all common sense, there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
Actions speak louder than words. And words speak louder than opinions in absence of words. So with any kind of ideological dispute between an individual and a larger group, we might want to consider whether either party is acting, speaking, or simply thinking. We can even make a table, like so.
To give a suitably neutral example, let’s say that the individual is committed to the idea that chocolate chip cookies are delicious. The individual may simply leave their belief as a belief, falling into category A. Alternately, they may tell all their friends that chocolate chip cookies are delicious, write editorials extolling the deliciousness of chocolate chip cookies, or make food-porny paintings of really, really tasty-looking chocolate chip cookies, falling into category B. Most radically, they could do stuff like actually baking and eating chocolate chip cookies, or selling cookie-making paraphernalia, or handing cookies out on the street, or providing material assistance to the Keebler Eleves. A small but predictable number of bad apples will end up trying to burn down a pudding factory.
Society – which, for our purposes here, is chocolate-chip-cookie-averse – also has options. Since we don’t typically think of society as having “thoughts” as such, category 1 just describes a situation where liking chocolate chip cookies is rare enough that openly admitting a fondness for them marks you as kind of a weird dude, with all the subtle attendant consequences. If the Secretary of Cookies issues a press release stating that “Our nation is founded on certain core values, including the principal that a cookie is divinely ordained as a union between rolled oats, raisins, eggs, brown sugar, and cinammon,” it’s category 2. And if the possession of Tollhouse morsels is a class A felony carrying a minimum sentence of no fewer than five years, it’s category three.
According to our current understanding of how government should work, we tend to think that A should be met with 1, B with 2, and C with 3. Let’s pretend that instead of talking about cookies, we’ve been talking about marijuana. Distributing and selling it can get you imprisoned. Speaking in favor of marijuana can not, but will be met with ripostes from the Department of Health. What you believe about marijuana is no one’s business but your own… but if you believe that it’s the bees knees, you also believe that most people (or maybe just “most people”) would disapprove of your opinion. There are a few tricky areas where particularly extreme forms of speech can be met with actual punishment — incitement to violence, for instance, or child pornography, or false police reports. And societal groups of various kinds will pretty regularly respond to A with 2, telling people that it’s un-American not to support the troops, or that turning a blind eye to torture is itself morally equivalent to torture, or whatever. But it should be noted that, although it does happen pretty regularly, A2 is usually seen as a dick move, and often will be met with disapproval both from across the aisle and from the moderate wing of one’s own faction.
Far more troubling, however, is A3, where individuals can wind up in jail or in front of a firing squad just because of their beliefs. In a situation like this, merely thinking something has become a criminal act. And this is where the Orwellian term “thoughtcrime” comes in. If we felt it necessary, we could supplement that term with “speechcrime” and “actcrime,” although these are typically covered by the unmarked term “crime.” (Incidentally, the few kinds of speech that are straight-up illegal in modern American society tend to be parsed as a kind of act for legal purposes. Copyright infringement, for instance, is not a special kind of speech: it is a special kind of thievery. Shouting fire in a crowded theater is prohibited specifically because it will cause actions that the government has a right to prevent, such as the trampling of people to death. Slander and libel need to have demonstrably caused harm, which means that they are not, per the landmark decision in Sticks v. Stones, merely words.)
If we think of there being three different kinds of crime, then there would also be three different kinds of law enforcement. The regular police (who just about everyone approves of save for anarchists and N.W.A.), spend most of their time dealing with illegal acts. Censors, seen as a necessary evil at best, prevent and punish illegal speech. And the term “thought police” applies to people who spend their time preventing and punishing illegal thoughts. Well… kinda sorta. But it doesn’t actually work that way.