The Problem with Thoughtcrime

Prejudice is a belief or judgment made before or without due consideration of the facts.

Discrimination is acting on your prejudice.

I have recently heard of discrimination being condemned, but prejudice by contrast being ‘acceptable’. This is dangerous territory. In Orwell’s ‘1984’ there was attempted policing of the very thoughts of society. To think contrary to the status quo was a criminal offence. I defend the right to free thought vehemently, but in doing so please be careful not to defend prejudice as well.

First of all there is the painful tendency for prejudice to become discrimination quite subtly, often without the person realising they are doing it.

Second, I would argue that there is a moral responsiblity to think and act ethically. I’m not suggesting that this means following the status quo like a sheep. On the contrary: It means challenging yourself and others to justify opinions and actions. In the unlikely event that a person was actually able to completely isolate and prevent their prejudices from influencing their actions and becoming discriminatory, it still means that they have stopped trying to BE moral.

Of course, prejudice can be useful – as when there is insufficient time to fully consider a situation, like a sudden attack, we may be forced to action before judgment. I would advocate taking steps – even physically moving aside! – to create more time if possible, before karate-chopping the blur which turns out to be a lady handing you a poppy!

Prejudice comes ‘before’ judgment and does away with it. By prejudging, there is no longer a need for reflective and critical thought. This would seem a dangerous tendency if we accept that to be moral we need to reflect and consider our behaviour and values carefully. By criticising tolerance of prejudice I am not advocating an oppressive state with ‘Thoughtcrime’. A person’s thoughts are justifiably free and private. However, to promote the belief that ceasing to think – via prejudice – is therefore an acceptable lifestyle choice seems a particularly insidious method of damaging the moral fabric of society. As members of society we have a duty to be moral, and consequentially to combat prejudice in ourselves which, if not immoral, is certainly amoral.

So what do we do when a person decides to opt out of this? When they say they will not discriminate, but decide to be prejudiced? Effectively saying that they dispute their moral duty? Well, I doubt very much that they could manage to avoid discrimination in practice without moral consideration, given the sheer range of situations and contexts. The upshot is that Thoughtcrime is actually a pretty redundant concept. Any person forsaking their moral duties will likely be caught out when they unwittingly discriminate, and that is fair game for intervention! To go any further than this would be to fall into an Orwellian nightmare, so that is as far as I’m willing to push it. No need for rats in face cages or waterboarding then.

So long as we challenge discrimination and encourage reflection and discussion in others, prejudice will find it hard to flourish. If we stop doing so, we tacitly condone prejudice and in turn the failure to give due moral consideration to our actions.