Mind War: Part Eight -- Thought Crime

I read 1984 at an extremely young and impressionable age. I think I was about 11 or 12, and very naive and sheltered (though clearly not censored in my reading).

Note, this was long before the spate of young adult dystopian fiction that's recently been so popular (and which probably started with The Giver back in the early 90s).

The book had a huge impact on me. At the time, 1984 struck me as a horror novel and I remember the ending scaring the hell out of me and keeping me up nights (fucking rat dreams). But what struck me more was the very end, when Winston meets Julia again, but has no longing for her. When no one cares if they are together... because they don't want to be together. When no one cares what Winston thinks because Winston can no longer think.

Consumer products, saving the world since... well, 1984
I was a young adult by the time I got around to Brave New World (which I read along with re-reading 1984). By this time I had a more mature and nuanced perspective and found this version of dystopia less terrifying (in the horror sense) but way more scary. The thing I found particularly moving was that for John there was no middle ground -- no safe place and no going back. The myth of the Noble Savage or The Good Ol' Days were as false as the Myth of Technological Progress.

For a pointed comparison of the two, you can see the introduction to Amusing Ourselves to Death. Or just check out this nifty infographic version (in case your attention spans have been too degraded to handle a whole book -- smell the irony!). Author Neil Postman makes the case that we are much more Huxleyan than Orwellian and I've agreed with him for quite some time.

Lately though I've started to think that we are being crushed between the two. On the one side, we have neo-cons and their embrace of moral and social control, censorship of information, hate for "the other," strict hierarchy, oppressive and meaningless religion, and totalitarian brutality. On the other, the liberal-gone-wild (call it postmodern liberalism) world of trigger warnings, blind tolerance, the cult of mediocrity, militant materialism, and the disparagement of the family, morality, or any kind of spirituality. Both groups demarcate people into better and worse categories (based on race or religion or education or demographics). It's just that one shoots their scapegoats in the streets while the other oppresses paternalisticly, meducating (that's not a typo) them into oblivion. Both like rewriting history in a culture of one truth only. Both have their sacred cows and heresies. Both want control of the young and gain that control through damage.

The conservatives love the corporation and hate the government. The liberals hate the corporation and love the government. Well, to quote another Orwell book (one which I also read too, too young): "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which." At the highest level, these are the same people, and they've done such a great job of spreading divisiveness that we just endlessly fight each other, distracted while they charge us for our own enslavement while destroying everything we need to survive (water, air, food, community, spirituality).

We think of censorship as telling us what information we can take in and what we can communicate. Freedom of speech and the press and the first amendment and all that. But what both Orwell and Huxley teach us is that the system doesn't just dictate what you can read or say, but more importantly what you can think.

Orwell introduced us to thoughtcrime, which is not bad word or bad deed, but bad idea. He also has his characters practice crimestop. This is, to quote Orwell himself:

"... the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity."

-- The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism

The next time you wonder how someone you disagree with can be so willfully ignorant, remember crimestop.

Huxley however, has more insidious forms of thought control. Through genetic manipulation, early conditioning, and drug use his society makes its inhabitants unable to think inappropriate or wrong things. The lowest classes are specifically bred to be less intelligent so that they don't chafe at their restrictions. Glad we don't do any of that, right?

The problem with thought control, which isn't mind control in the tin foil hat sense but much more ubiquitous and insidious, is that you can't analyze what you can't think. Basically, large chunks of reality and experience have been placed in unknown unknown territory. We don't know, but we don't know we don't know. Which is why people can form diametrically opposed opinions and honestly believe these views are both equally "true."

Recently my husband reminded me of the quote (originally by Aeschylus): In war, truth is the first casualty. He wisely pointed out that with the war on drugs, the war on crime, and the war on poverty, not to mention all the actual wars, hot and cold, that we've been embroiled in for something like 95% of US history... well, there's no hope in hell of actually figuring out the truth at this point.

But the danger here goes deeper. I'd like to direct your attention at this point to one of my favorite movies, The Truman Show. I'm very fond of this movie because it's a great example of anti-propaganda. It questions the status quo and makes you question it as well, yet it does so in such a way as to not cause cognitive dissonance in the average viewer. Its message slips in, under the cover of laughs and Jim Carrey's familiar slapstick overacting. It's so amusing you almost don't notice how damned disturbing it is. But any movie that foments its own psychological disorder clearly has power.

OK, point: At the end of the movie -- and seriously it came out in 1998, so I'm calling expiration of the spoiler status of limitations -- the architect of the show speaks to Truman directly. And Truman's reply is "you never had a camera in my head!" It's a powerful moment, but unfortunately, it's also not the problem.

Yes, even in an age of universal (and cooperative) surveillance, there's no camera in your head. But if you are incapable of thinking outside the conditioning you receive, that doesn't really matter. In fact, the powers that be already have a pretty good idea of what you are thinking. They know what you like and want based on targeted demographics. They have a good idea of what's going on in your life. They message to you so effectively and so ubiquitously, that it's not unfair to suggest that you are actually walking around in a bubble, blind to anything that doesn't match your expectations, opinions, demographics. So how can you honestly say you have freedom of thought?

Notice how when you buy a new car you'll starting noticing the same car everywhere you go (another Camry!)? That's confirmation bias and it's human nature. It's hard enough overcoming that tendency on your own, but to do it in an environment where everything is conspiring to keep you in your little confirmation world? That's almost impossible.

And this is why it's so difficult for people think things that aren't proscribed by their conditioning.

There are political and social ramifications to this, but more immediately relevant, there are personal ones as well. If you have a problem in your life, you are probably only considering a tiny subset of the possible solutions. You can't think outside the box (you may have been heretofore unaware that there even was a box) which means that a whole host of options are closed to you without your knowledge.

This is bad news for the average person, but doubly bad for the magician. You have the ability to impact probability in order to change your life. But you can only change as much as you can see. Ever have an experience of someone you know doing a spell and then leaving the results on the ground? Like they do a spell for money and then someone offers them a weird side gig that they turn down? You can see it, but they just can't. The results were too far outside their box. Anyone with magical experience knows that the universe seems to delight in giving you what you enchant for in the least direct and practical way. It likes plot twists and weird asides and growth experiences. Basically the universe is running a sitcom for it's own entertainment and, again to quote Truman "you are the star."

You probably can't escape the universe (at least not with a meatsuit on) but it behooves you to start trying to escape the cultural conditioning that the human part of it seems to delight in imposing. Here are some ideas:

  • Embrace uncertainty. If you don't know the right answer, avoid taking a position (or at least a strong one).
  • Take the opposing view. Start with the premise that the view you despise is accurate and then examine it in detail.
  • Widen your sources and roll with the conflicting information. 
  • Give primacy to your own experiences (not ideas or beliefs, but experiences). You can really only ever know the story of you. Read it closely.
  • Practice objectivity. Yes, it's really hard, but it's worth it. And take note where your objective option directly conflicts with your emotional response.
  • For problem solving, check out my Risk and Issue Management posts (particularly Solve for X).
  • Go the fast route. If you want to crack your brain open there are techniques and substances you can use. But you have to be ready for how those experience can literally change your mind.
Fortunately, the powers that be still can't prosecute you for Thought Crime. But if you never think anything you haven't been conditioned to think, well like Winston, it doesn't really matter.


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