Thoughtcrime and the Assault on the Freedom of Expression
In the novel 1984, The Party observed its citizens to ensure they were not committing thought crime, the most serious offense against the state. Thought crime is never defined in the novel, but is loosely defined as thought that runs counter to Ingsoc (English Socialism). The Oxford Living Dictionary (2016) defines thought crime as, “An instance of unorthodox or controversial thinking, considered as a criminal offence or as socially unacceptable.” This definition is still nebulous as thought crime could conceivably consist of numerous thoughts and actions, many of which might be unnamed or subjective, which a totalitarian regime would likely favor.
To guide the state in enforcing thought crime (although totalitarian regimes show little regard for adherence to the rule of law), is the Newspeak language dictionary. Newspeak, as described in the novel is, “the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year,” in an effort to “narrow the range of thought” (Orwell, 1949, p. 52). This dictionary helps to establish what is and is not acceptable to think and do.
The narrowing of thought helps to control the citizenry and to ensure collectivism. Outmoded ways of thinking, language (Oldspeak), and persons are purged from society as they no longer fit the mold. The novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith, runs afoul of The Party as he begins to question their logic and fails to exhibit doublethink, or the ability to hold two contradictory opinions as true. He also uses Oldspeak in his writings for The Party, which highlights both his inability to adapt, and his rebellious tendencies.
Thought crimes are not only opinions and actions against social norms, but are also crimes against the state. As such, thought criminals are persecuted, prosecuted, and purged by the state. This persecution will ultimately result in a society where there is no need for doublethink, because citizens would simply accept the beliefs of The Party. Soon there would be no one left that has subversive thoughts, because Newspeak will limit the ability to have and/or articulate those thoughts.
To examine if the United States is gravitating towards policing thoughtcrime, it is necessary to consider if the United States government is attempting to limit speech and thought. The short answer is no, but with heavy caveats.
The freedom of expression was so highly valued by the Founding Fathers that they awarded it a position of prominence in the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment protects Americans against Congress making laws “abridging the freedom of speech” and permitting citizens to “assemble peaceably and to petition their government” (Legal Information Institute, 2016, para. 2).
The freedom of speech is a right many Americans have an affinity towards, and one the left often seeks to exercise, though they also seek to limit its use by their political opponents. Nevertheless, similar to the right to privacy, the right to free speech is something a great number of Americans often appear willing to voluntarily relinquish. While the United States does not have a formal Thought Police, many Americans are ready and willing to police the thoughts of other Americans.
The policing of speech, by both political parties, became all too prevalent during the 2016 election season. However, American liberal progressives appear to be the most vocal and ardent enforcers of thoughtcrime. This phenomenon is most prevalent on college campuses, which were once considered a bastion of free and controversial thought. Now, these campuses are home to safe spaces and students must be provided trigger warnings before they are exposed to ideas that may challenge their delicate world views (Grinberg, 2016).
In fact, according to author Alan Levinovitz (2016, para. 1), “Practices meant to protect marginalized communities can also ostracize those who disagree with them.” This ostracizing goes so far as to create an environment where more than a quarter of students surveyed in a recent Gallup poll felt college administrators “should be able to restrict expression of potentially offensive political views” (Capuzzi, 2016, para. 13). Still worse, thought policing is attempting to limit what can be taught in universities, as reported by Greg Lukianoff and Johnathan Haidt (2015, para. 1), who wrote that professors at Harvard Law were asked not to teach rape law because it was deemed too traumatic, and they were instucted to not “even use the word violate (as in ‘that violates the law’) lest it cause students distress.”
In addition, questionable speech, such as suggesting “free speech matters” in response to attempts at censorship, is reported as biased speech, or proclaiming “unborn lives matter,” in, of all places, a Catholic university, is considered bigotry (Will, 2016). College professors at various universities have lost their tenure for challenging conventional wisdom, which used to be part of a professor’s job description (Friederdorf, 2015; Kaplan, 2015). On the other end of the spectrum, many conservatives want to prosecute college campus flag burners using a law that was ruled unconstitutional be the Supreme Court (Walsh, 2016). Lastly, in events that might be reaching Orwellian magnitudes, The University of California’s administration, “with the support of University President Janet Napolitano and egged on by the state’s legislature, has been attempting to adopt new speech codes that—in the name of combating ‘anti-Semitism’—would formally ban various forms of Israel criticism” (Friedersdorf, 2016, para. 27).
Even otherwise “liberal” professors are not immune from the wrath of the Thought Police. Northwestern University Professor Laura Kipnis, a self-proclaimed liberal and feminist, recently caught the ire of the Thought Police when she challenged the “strict rules against professor and student relationships” and noted discrepancies in the stories of a “legal battle between a Northwestern University undergraduate student and a philosophy professor accused of ‘unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances’” (Wemple, 2016, para. 3). In response to her dissenting opinion, and in an effort to silence and punish her for her contrarian views, two graduate students at the university filed a Title IX complaint alleging her thoughts created a “‘chilling effect’ on students’ ability to report sexual misconduct” (Wemple, 2016, para. 7).
Outside of academia, the suppression of thoughts and ideas is also permeating American culture. It is now commonplace to label political opponents as evil and to seek to ostracize them from society or attempt to bring about their financial ruin. For instance, multiple media outlets and politicians have disparaged Donald Trump supporters as “deplorable,” and the government forcing Christian bakers to bake cakes for weddings between homosexual couples or be forced to pay heavy fines that could force them out of business. Thought policing has even gone so far as to have a clothing designer refuse to make clothing for incoming First Lady Melania Trump and encouraging other designers to do the same because she disagrees with the views of President-Elect Trump (Adams, 2016).
America has not descended into complete Orwellian thought policing yet, but it moves closer to that possible scenario each year. Worse, the threat is coming from both the left and the right, so it is likely immaterial who is in power, although the left does have a slight lead in its assault. Nevertheless, current thought policing behavior is heavily concentrated in social settings and universities, and it has yet to become the law of the land, though there are increasing instances of government intrusion. This intrusion is largely the result of social norms and desires creeping into and controlling politics. Although most individuals in power generally have good intentions, often these intentions begin to circumvent the rights of others in the name of equality, inclusion, or patriotism. Using this initiative of inclusiveness, thought crime shows signs of evolving from social shaming to criminal and civil penalties. Worse, the currently accepted form of thought policing does not only exist for present thoughts and actions, but also now extend into history, putting historical figures and events into the sights of the Thought Police.
Adams, C. (2016). Fashion designer urges industry to refuse to dress Melania Trump. Retrieved November 21, 2016
Capuzzi, C. (2016). Fighting for Free Speech on America’s Campuses. Retrieved November 16, 2016
Friederdorf, C. (2015). Stripping a Professor of Tenure Over a Blog Post. Retrieved November 21, 2016
Friedersdorf, C. (2016). The Mounting Threats to Free Speech on Campus. Retrieved November 21, 2016
Grinberg, E. (2016). Trigger warnings, safe spaces: Guide to new school year. Retrieved November 18, 2016
Kaplan, S. (2015). University of Illinois censured after professor loses job over tweets critical of Israel. Retrieved November 21, 2016
Legal Information Institute. (2016). First Amendment. Retrieved November 20, 2016
Levinovitz, A. (2016). Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces on College Campuses Can Silence Religious Students. Retrieved November 19, 2016
Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2015). How Trigger Warnings Are Hurting Mental Health on Campus. Retrieved November 21, 2016
Orwell, G. (1949). 1984 (Kindle). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harourt.
Oxford Living Dictionaries. (2016). thoughtcrime – definition of thoughtcrime in English.
Walsh, M. (2016). Trump’s FIRST Order: Anyone Burning An American Flag To Be Charged With Treason. Retrieved November 21, 2016
Wemple, E. (2016). Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis details Title IX investigation over essay. Retrieved November 28, 2016
Will, G. (2016). Higher Education’s Descent into Absurdity. Retrieved November 21, 2016
* Max Alexander is a former U.S. Intelligence Officer and U.S. Army Veteran. He is currently a Digital Forensics Instructor for The George Washington University and Cybrary. He has a Master’s Degree in Science and Technology Intelligence from the National Intelligence University, and is pursuing a Doctorate in Public Administration from Valdosta State University.
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