Thought Crime and Hate Crime

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   June 4, 2020

In 1949, the British writer, George Orwell, published a novel titled 1984 – the name of a year which was then as far in the future as it is now in the past. The society he depicted has been characterized as a “dystopia,” meaning the opposite of a Utopia.

The name “Utopia,” the title of a book by the English statesman, Sir Thomas More, (whom you may know, from representations in various media, as the “Man For All Seasons”) is actually a pun, meaning either “No Place” or “Good Place” – depending on how you spelled it in Greek. But the rulers of society in Orwell’s 1984 went so far as to create their own language, called Newspeak. And one of the words in its extensive vocabulary was “Thoughtcrime,” meaning to harbor thoughts not in accord with the doctrine of the regime.

In a kind of anachronistic irony, Thomas More himself, some four centuries earlier, was guilty of that very crime. Although he had maintained a good personal relationship with his sovereign, King Henry VIII, and had risen to the position of Lord High Chancellor of England, he was in strong disagreement with Henry’s breaking away from the Church of Rome, and with his divorcing one wife in order to acquire another. Thomas More generally kept these thoughts to himself – but, despite very strong pressure, including imprisonment, and the pleadings of his own family, he refused to sign certain papers signifying his approval of the King’s actions. This was ruled to be tantamount to treason – for which, in 1535, he suffered the penalty of death by beheading.

In the years since then, Thomas More has been canonized as a Saint by the Catholic Church – and even the Soviets included his name publicly on an obelisk celebrating revolutionary thinkers (presumably for his “communistic” attitude towards property rights, as expressed in “Utopia”). But the thinking of “politically incorrect” thoughts remains a hot issue into our own time. When brute force is at the disposal of those in power, open dissent becomes, to say the least, a risky business. In Nazi Germany, there were millions who survived only by not revealing their true feelings. Martin Heidegger, the great German philosopher, however, managed to stay on good terms with the Hitler regime, lived in Germany throughout the war, and continued to philosophize when it was over, with an academic reputation more or less intact.

There is a song I have always liked, called “The Vicar of Bray,” which covers a period of English History, from about 1660 to 1720 – i.e. a single lifetime – in which there was a change of regime no less than five times, involving, each time, both religious and political changes. In each verse of the song, The Vicar of Bray retains his church position only by ostensibly changing his religious and political views. To give you a taste of this biting piece of wit, I will quote just the last stanza, in which King George I, a Protestant from Hanover, is now the reigning monarch:

The illustrious House of Hanover, and Protestant Succession,

To these I do allegiance swear – while they may keep possession –

And in my faith and loyalty I never more shall falter,

And George my lawful King shall be – until the times do alter.

We, in this country today, are encouraged to believe that thoughtcrime was just a figment of Orwell’s imagination. You can think whatever you like, we are told. But when it comes to expressing unpopular thoughts, we run into speechcrime. Yes, I know, freedom of speech is a cherished American ideal. But a new concept has emerged – that of hatespeech – which gives us hatespeechcrime. Even in 1984, hate, per se, was not criminal. In fact, there was a daily period of Two Minutes of Hate, for expressing antipathy towards the ruling party’s enemies.

The kind of hatespeech which many countries – even democracies – now ban, although they define it in different ways, usually concerns broad dislike of certain ethnic, religious, or cultural groups. Antisemitism is the classic example. But hatespeech can even apply to individuals, in such forms as online bullying.

Our thoughts cannot yet be mechanically read – although that time is surely coming. But even today, in our Sweet Land of Liberty, not all hatred is illegal. In fact, a recent President (George H.W. Bush) publicly expressed his hatred of broccoli – and was not impeached. (But what if it had been a hatred of peaches?)


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