Thursday, January 08, 2009

Thought Control

When the “peat bog soldiers” were sent by the Nazi’s to work until they died, they took consolation in singing a song titled, “Die Gedanken sind frei” (“Thoughts Are Free”). The idea expressed in the title of this piece - that thought remains the outpost of human liberty – gave a measure of comfort to the prisoners who had been deprived of every other human freedom. At least they could defy their captors in this one remaining quarter: they still exercised control over their minds.

In his dysutopian classic 1984, George Orwell imagined a society in which even this final liberty had been taken away. Using omnipresent surveillance technology, Orwell’s thought police root out and punish those who engage in unapproved thinking.

For years, Orwell’s predictions seemed to have little relevance to the free world of the West. While communist nations routinely used the Leninist notion of "false consciousness” to brainwash and control the minds of its citizens, the Western world has consistently stood as a hedge against such methods by putting a premium on intellectual freedom. As the oft-quoted maxim (falsely attributed to Voltaire) puts it, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
In recent years, however, Western society has experienced a paradigm shift, as new legislation and jurisprudence has begun increasingly to focus not merely on actions, but also on thoughts.
I first became aware of this tendency when Dr. N. T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham addressed the House of Lords on 9 February, 2006. In his address, the Bishop listed a number of recent cases, noting that
“since the crimes in question have to do, not with actions but with ideas and beliefs, what we are seeing is thought crime.” He went on: “My Lords, I did not think I would see such a thing in this country in my lifetime…. The word for such a state of affairs is ‘tyranny’: sudden moral climate change, enforced by thought police.”
Elsewhere I have written about Britain’s recent volley of new laws with thought-crime implications, and this is not the place to repeat it. Suffice to say, I hoped that by moving to America I would encounter an environment of more intellectual freedom. Surely, in the “land of the free”, incorrect thoughts would be debated rather than criminalized. As it turned out, this hope was naïve. Many prominent Americans seem even more intent than their British counterparts in turning Orwell’s predictions into a blueprint rather than a warning.

When I first arrived in America in the summer of 2007, everyone was talking about new “hate crime” legislation that was being considered in congress. What interested me was that under the offence of “hate crime”, not only what we do, but the thoughts and motives behind it, can also be publishable. Thus, if the thought behind an act of violence can be showed to involve certain types of hate, the crime is considered doubly bad. This can be seen in the comment of Representative Barbara Cubin (R-Wyoming) when she said, "We will not stand for the arbitrary killing of other people due to any hateful act of intolerance." Similarly, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan said, "Angelinos have no tolerance for crimes motivated by hatred or bias of any kind." [emphasis added in both] Commenting on this trend to penalize, not just the crime, but the state of mind behind it, Gregory Koukl observed that
“Until recently, the law has been completely uninterested in penalizing motive. Whether one was driven to commit a crime by greed, malice, love, or hate was irrelevant. Only the conduct mattered. As far as the law was concerned, one could believe as he wished. He could like or dislike according to his whim. He could love or hate as he pleased.
Hate crime legislation changes all that. Now motive as well as conduct can be punished.”

The hate crime legislation did not pass. However, many states already have measures which use the concept of “hate crime” to criminalize government-disapproved cognitive conditions. For example, throughout the California public school system, Christian students are routinely given special “diversity training” to force them to think politically correct thoughts about homosexuality. Once content to merely address the problems of “homophobic bullying” in schools, the gay lobby is now going after students who even think that homosexuality is a sin.
The de facto criminalization of certain thought has also found expression as a mechanism for short-circuiting debate within the American media. On issues such as intelligent design, global warming, homosexual rights, abstinence education and a host of other questions, American liberals allow for only one correct viewpoint. In a final swipe of McCarthyism, those who dissent from the grinding uniformity demanded by the liberal establishment are treated, not as mistaken, but as bad. Thus, journalists who dissent from climate change hysteria, for example, do not require refutation but stand in need of therapy, since any alternative interpretation to global warming automatically puts one on the same level as delusional flat-earthers.

I'll give another example. Lawmakers who dissent from the standard line on homosexual and abortion rights are castigated, not merely as mistaken, but as the modern equivalents of the Spanish Inquisition. Scientists who conduct research using an intelligent design paradigm are not simply making a blunder, but are the self-delusional descendents of the 17th century churchmen who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope. Through these and similar ad hominem devices, the sages of our age are effectively becoming a new priestcraft, insulated against critique within the institutions they permeate.

Even in American universities, which have traditionally been havens of intellectual freedom, thought control techniques have become rife. Almost all American universities now have some form of moral and political re-education built into freshman orientation and residential programming. In his article, ‘Thought Reform 101: The Orwellian implications of today's college orientation’ (published by Reason Magazine in 2000), Alan Kors shows that many of these programs are explicitly racist, separating students by skin colour and focusing on racial differences rather than commonalities. Using psychological techniques of group programming to induce thought control, these programs apply guilt-concepts to reverse the cognitive operations in students’ minds. In one case that was documented in The New York Times, freshmen at Columbia University were given the chance to rid themselves of “their own social and personal beliefs…” Students who fail to go along with these thought-control processes are demonized, castigated and manipulated through guilt.

Now that freedom of thought rather than merely speech is an issue, perhaps the familiar quotation needs updating. “I may disapprove of what you think, but I will defend to the death your right to think it.” It would seem that in America, even this basic human right is now under attack.

Further Reading

The Retreat of Reason: Political Correctness and the Corruption of Public Debate


Read my columns at the Charles Colson Center

Read my writings at Alfred the Great Society

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