Thought-crime is a phrase bandied about as much nowadays as ‘witch-hunt’ or ‘Benghazi.’ Its a pejorative term used on both the right and left to protest limits on speech and actions. People who utilize the phrase claim that legitimate expression has been criminalized in a certain situation. A recent celebrated example involved far-right activist Tommy Robinson (b. Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) who broke a court order. Supporters across the world (although only a relative few in the UK) demanded his release, with the narrative largely about the state criminalizing expression. We could name numerous other instances across the political spectrum where the cry of thought-crime has rang out. This particular issue has become contentious.
2. Origins and Critique
First mentioned in Orwell’s 1984, thought-crime examplifies the abuse of state power. Critics say that not only is the state determined to control public infrastructure, education, taxes, and what drugs we take … it also wants total control over what we see, hear and even think.
The critique of thought crime is justified on the basis that governments must serve the people, must listen to them, allow them to change society as they see fit, and facilitate them when they assume radical standpoints. Thought-crime is also portrayed as ‘using a hammer to crack a nut,’ i.e. overbearing force brought to bear on a scenario.
3. The Main Flaws
Despite the hyperbole, the fact is that thought-crime is misused as a term far more than it is used correctly. This misunderstanding arises for two maim reasons. First of all, critics wrongly assert that governments have no right to limit expression. The second issue, bound up with the first, is that any limiting of expression amounts to thought-crime. Added to these two main reasons is the fact that critics never pay attention to the structure of the phrase thought-crime; it is penalizing inner volitions and attitudes, not external ones. A by-product of such a lack of understanding is that real thought-crime gets missed. I will now elaborate a bit more but also concede that governments do engage in thought-crime.
4. Rights of Censorship
Government has a right to censor what we see or hear and even the most liberal countries do so (although they are hesitant to say so). The best way to explicate this is consideration of some examples. Sailors on navy ships can’t justify their call for a mutiny on free speech grounds. Expressions of racism are banned in many countries. Someone can’t call for a neighbour’s house to be burnt down on free speech grounds. Even conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones have been sued for making false allegations. And, in the celebrated recent case already mentioned, a judge can impose restrictions on what is expressed publicly so a court case can proceed smoothly.
The basic rule is that speech is restricted where it conflicts with other rights and protections individuals have, or where it hampers the procedures of government or justice.
From these examples you can see how bogus the claims of those who cry ‘thought-crime’ are. Reasonable limits can be placed on our activities. Speech and expression can be curtailed so long as such statutes and measures satisfy certain qualities of law, such as equity and public proclamation.
5. Real Thought-crime
At the same time, governments do engage in thought-crime. I would define it roughly along these lines; a person may behave in accordance with the law but is yet accused and even prosecuted for breaking the law on other counts. This has happened regularly in recent times with terror laws, which have been used to silence forms of legitimate, if controversial, activism, such as environmental campaigning. It occurred in the past in places like South Africa where anti-communist laws were used to jail civil rights protestors. Actions such as banning face-veils in public are also examples of thought-crime. No link can be established between acts of terror and dress specific to Muslims (acts of terror are often committed by non-practising Muslims) but national security concerns are invoked to ground such measures.
More generally, thought-crime is where suspicion of an individuals private motives and volitions is the primary basis for introducing sets of different laws or justifying measures which restrict the lawful activities of such persons. It has nothing to do with existing laws which don’t specifically target individuals or groups unfairly but which limit expression. To invoke thought-crime frequently is to devalue the term and allow actual thought-crime to occur.
Governments represent the interests of society in general. As such, they do have a right to ban or curtail certain forms of expression. Nonetheless, they must give reasons for such actions. If they claim that certain forms of expression pose threats to the operation of public duties and individual liberties they must demonstrate the link.
Otherwise it is thought-crime.