Category Archives: Society

Thought-Crime is Imaginary

Every person of a halfway sound mind can distinguish between her/his fantasy life and the real world.  We all occasionally ponder away, daydreaming about a fictional version of ourselves, doing things we know we couldn’t possibly accomplish in reality; that’s why it’s called fantasy, where our minds offer us an escape from the limitations of our daily environment.

We know that we will never start a rock band; we will never write a bestselling novel; we will (probably) never get the opportunity to do something extraordinary in the face of human history; people will not travel far and wide seeking our grand wisdom when we are old and “wise”.  And none of that matters.  Because when we are daydreaming about the alternate us–the us we can imagine ourselves being–the fact that we recognize the futility of the scenarios created by our minds is a non-issue.  In this regard, fantasizing about oneself as more accomplished, more polished, stronger, and in other customarily decent settings, is perfectly acceptable and expected to just about every person (because, as already stated, we all do it).  However, from what I can gather, this reasoning also appears to completely negate itself when our fantasies go out of the acceptable fold of social decorum.

We find it disturbing when we hear that someone is having impolite thoughts on a topic, or about a person.  Thoughts of violence, sex, and misconduct, are seen as more threatening in comparison to the more positive-minded daydreams we occasionally indulge in.  Unsurprisingly, we grant more validity to people’s thoughts when we see it as potentially harmful to ourselves (and others), even if the source of these threatening thoughts is the same as the source of the uplifting thoughts.  And the fact that there is as much of a chance of any person acting on their indecent thoughts as there is of her/him acting on their decent ones, does nothing to the way we reason that the potential for harm is far too great to leave it to pure chance, causing us to respond with due repulsion towards the originator of the bad thoughts–the person having the indecent fantasies.  Moreover, our behavior towards said individual is such that it makes little distinction between someone having thoughts about an action, and actually carrying them out (after all, it is true that the first step in committing a crime, is thinking about committing the crime).  Hence, despite the low probability that anyone who has ever thought about doing something horrible to someone else (be it a fantasy about committing assault, murder, robbery, etc.), one never knows whether or not the person doing the thinking is simply soothing their frustration through daydreaming, or seriously plotting to make good on their unsavory fantasies.  Although all of this is completely noncontroversial, there is one fact that needs to be addressed on this topic; namely, that thought crime is imaginary.  And it is imaginary in the literal sense of the word, in that it occurs solely in a person’s imagination.

Now, the question becomes how exactly can one be held accountable (or be treated as if to be held accountable) for actions that, at the core of it all, never happened?  For example, if someone has a fantasy about physically hurting me, but never acts on these thoughts, why is it that (were this person to reveal these thoughts to me years down the road) I would instinctively behave as if an attempted crime has actually been committed?  No harm has actually been carried out against me, and more importantly no harm will be carried out against me; the offense was, quite literally, completely imaginary.  So, why the moral indignation on my part?  Of course, it should be mentioned that this is solely a hypothetically generic me, I personally don’t think I could care less if anyone is daydreaming about hurting me, as long as they don’t carry out the act (to be honest, I’m fairly certain that more than one person I’ve known has thought about punching me in my face on more than a few occasions).  But that’s not how we collectively react to hearing about someone else’s repulsive fantasies, even more so if these fantasies are about someone other than ourselves (in which case we will gasp in union at the plight this innocent person has suffered for being the subject of the potentially-dangerous thought-criminal’s mental trespasses).

At the base of it, I think the lack of control we are capable of exercising in regard to any other person’s thoughtful offenses against our person is what motivates the knee-jerk repulsion we fell towards any criminal fantasies someone might daydream about against us, or any other individual; since we do not have direct access to any mind other than our own, we reason that we can never be completely assured of the daydreamers true intent.  This is all understandable, and most of us recognize the threat associated with criminal thoughts, even if no actually desire exists to follow through on said thoughts.  And this is the reason why most of us choose to never share our darkest, indecent thoughts with anybody, lest we risk being ostracized from social discourse.

The thing that is left unanswered for me, though, is the reason for the inner guilt a person feels for having thoughts that might verge on the criminal, despite being fully aware of never actually wanting to carry them out.  Most don’t really need other people scolding them for their “wicked” thoughts, they do a fairly decent job of performing the mental self-flagellation all on their own.  I understand feeling repulsed at the knowledge that someone else has been having uncivil thoughts about a third party, since you don’t have any way of accessing someone else’s mind to truly confirm just how serious the potential harm is, but you do have access to your own thoughts; you can know how dangerous your crime-infested daydreams are to others.  And if you can say with reasonable certainty that the indecent things you have fantasized about have little to no chance in manifesting themselves in your real life interactions, then why engage in this immense grief over your imaginary crimes; at least in the case where you yourself are the perpetrator, is it still inappropriate to say that thought-crime posses of no real danger?  And if not (and you fear that to accept your indecent thinking would desensitize you to actually doing indecent things), how can you carry on contributing and interacting with a society, when you can’t measure or control the seriousness and danger of the mental concepts that you have created?  And how badly does it speak of a society that has taught you to fear the thoughts in your own head as being so lethal that you should internally apologize and repent for any impolite/uncustomary thought that pops into your mind?  Or can society even be blamed for a reaction that is so fundamentally human(e)?

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Everyone’s Free to be a Comedian, Just Don’t Pretend It Matters

Conversations have become a contest.  People will talk to each other, and quite often it seems the only thing carrying the discussion forward is the participants’ interest in being the one who will espouse the wittier sarcastic comment for the evening.  Which among us will be the first to point out a fellow commenter’s inferior tastes and ridicule her/his personal interests for sport?  “Pff, you actually listen to that?  No, no, I’m sure it’s great.  As long as you enjoy listening to mass-produced, watered down crap, I’m sure it’s just amazing. Hahaha!”  We are a generation of Jesters, and sarcasm is our native tongue.

It goes further than just a humorized pissing-contest to determine who is the most nonconformist of us all in regard to pop-culture trends.  Being the better joking cynic is, in and of itself, a very coveted role nowadays.  Is there anyone around who doesn’t see her/himself as the silver tongued renegade, putting those around her/him to shame with one clever phrase or pun?

Thus, the role of the Jester is romanticized as the stalwart, nobly standing for truth against an authoritarian regime.  (I believe the reminder most thrown around is how, in centuries past, it was only Jester who could mock the follies of the King.  A nuance that I have become keen on pointing out, however,  is that, no matter how clever a Jester’s words may be, they have never, and they will never, do anything to overthrow the authority of the King he mocks.)

The reason all strive to be the witty cynic, is that cynicism is at this point in time the absolute laziest form of passive resistance to whatever ills one might recognize in society.  Because it’s relatively easy to tear something down, but unfathomably hard to build anything worth looking at up in its place.  Yet, shouldn’t this last bit be the most important component of any legitimate social commentary?  If you notice that the foundation to a house is faulty, doesn’t it do more good to roll up your sleeves and think of a way by which to replace the rotting structure?  Does mocking it with your cynical wit do anything at all to point out solutions to the problem at hand?  Perhaps it gives you satisfaction, and those around you a jolly laugh, but that doesn’t change the fact that the house you’re in is sinking into the ground.  You claim you don’t care about the issue at all?  Then why bothering giving it enough of your attention to seek out and comment on at all?

When you talk to people, are you really engaging them in a conversation?  Or are you partly listening, partly waiting for a mishap on which to pounce on and demonstrate your clever wit?

What I fear is that if we become the generation that speaks in fast-paced, sarcastic soundbites, how will we communicate when the times calls for us to talk through issues which demand for us to expand our attention span past ready-made slogans, chants, and punchlines?

Jesters may be suited at pointing out problems, they are hardly fit to reason out solutions for them.

The Comfort of A Countercultural Mindset

Earlier today, a casual acquaintance made a remark to me which, although I’ve heard repeated often in past conversations, I can’t fully agree with.  The remark in question was (and I’m paraphrasing), “Cultural change is born amongst the downtrodden more than any other class.  This is because counterculture rises from the bottom-up, starting with the have-nots, rather than the haves.”  I take issue with this sort of broad-sweeping analysis.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it would look great on a poster or banner somewhere, but within the scope of modern history it really has little-to-no credible validity as a trusted byline.

To illustrate my point, I’ll refer to one of the most well-known examples of counterculture in recent history: the generation-wide shift in focus and values that came to categorize American youths in the 1960s.

The modes of thinking and doing in 1960s culture reflected the evermore growing generational gap which emerged as a consequence of the baby boomers maturing/reaching adolescence, and the great prosperity that many Americans enjoyed in the economic growth of the time.  Unlike what is implied by the remark stated above, the counterculture of the 1960s was not driven by the downtrodden or the have-nots of the socioeconomic ladder, but the very individuals who benefited most from the economic prosperity that arose throughout middle-class America following the Second World War.

Plainly put, the 1960s ranks as being amongst the richest of times in American history.  This rise in affluence made commercialism and consumerism a wide-scale business (in other words, people all over bought big and they spent big).  All of this reflected in the growing emergence of popular culture, which was essentially a byproduct of the increasing number of teenagers (growing out of the post-War baby boom) who were coming of age, and eager to establish an identity for themselves.  And fortunately there were just as many businesses and corporations eager to sell them the products (music, movies, fashion, etc.) needed to define such a thirst for identity.

Ironically, all this affluence also created a sense of resentment amongst idealistic youths, who sought to reject the commercialism and consumerism of the era.  The Beatniks, for example, began as a small group of idealistic young wanderers (usually middle-class, white, and financially comfortable), who idolized the lifestyle of social outsiders of the 1950s.  This group of wanderers (e.g. Allan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, etc.), and tales of their Bohemian travels throughout exotic segments of American society, served as inspiration to many of the countercultural offshoots that emerged amongst the youths of the 1960s (the most famous example being the Hippie subculture).

The image of the countercultures of this era are usually portrayed as abrasive (i.e. anti-war protests) or dynamic (i.e. the Civil Rights Movement).  Although these were definite reflections of the cultural divide which had become prominent at the time, the true countercultural thoughts and actions cannot be generalized or defined by a single movement or event, because it wasn’t a single movement or event.  Rather, it was a change in mindset caused by the way a new–larger than ever–generation was reacting to their environment on a day-to-day basis.  But, more than anything, it did not develop bottom-up, and was not inspired out of its participants economic hardship or scarcity in opportunity (statistically speaking, these young people had the most comfortable and hopeful lives out of any of the generations that preceded them).

The reason for this is that in order for countercultural thought to develop, a person must have the leisure time to reflect on their surrounding, in addition to enjoying the economic stability of their social era to make an alternative lifestyle even remotely plausible.  It is a luxury the downtrodden and truly impoverished simply don’t have, because those who don’t have the time or energy to philosophize about social change–who are often entirely dependent on the current social order to maintain even the little that its given them–will have the least interest in setting up a counter-anything (which is why people who reside in the lower-income bracket tend to exhibit the slowest rate of cultural change out of any other economic group).

I think the misconception partly stems from the popular conflation of countercultures with social revolutions.  At first this is an understandable mistake, but upon any close inspection the distinction between the two couldn’t be starker.  The fact is, whereas revolutions seek to overturn, dispose of, and/or usurp the sociocultural order that happens to be dominating in the particular society and time, countercultures alone are not as ambitious; usually willing to be perfectly content with simply carving out a niche for themselves parallel to the existing order, thereby still existing within the greater framework of society, while preserving a distinct identity from it (even if only superficially so).