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)?

Trumping All Codes of Conduct for Presidential Candidates

Many businesses will go out of their way to have a signed document explicitly stating that if you, as an employee and representative of their company, are caught behaving in any way that is unbecoming of a sound moral character, and can be identified as a representative of said company, your employment can (and most likely will) be terminated.  If you are a cashier at a burger joint, a janitor at a hotel, or a teller at a bank, chances are you know what I’m referring to when I talk about this very specific part of a code of conduct agreement you sign upon employment.

I’ve know people who have been at the receiving end of this strict code of conduct policy, and while all of them readily griped about it, they all begrudgingly accepted it as a standard procedure of how employers taking no chances when it comes to associating with any potential negative publicity.  It is fortunate for us all, however, that we need not surrender to this sort of ethical dictation in our professional lives, for there is one job where such things are of no concern whatsoever; namely, being a presidential candidates.

Donald Trump has mocked people’s physical appearances, berated a handicapped man, asserted that a whole nationality is composed of rapists and murderers, and wants to potentially exclude an entire religious demographic from entering the country.  Imagine if their was footage of the lowly bank teller, or the Burger King cashier saying any of that, while wearing the name tag linking them to their respected places of employment?  I imagine that they would not be employed for too much longer.  Yet, the guy running for president, who–if elected–will be the public representative of you and I to the rest of the world, is judged by a lower set of ethical standards than the guy who takes your order at the drive-thru.  This should be an astounding realization, but it’s not.  Nobody really cares.  Even people who genuinely dislike Trump still treat him with a level of seriousness he has not earned.

Simply put, the man is an asshole, and people can better relate to assholes than straight-arrows.  They forget about the fact that nothing about Donald Trump is actually relatable to them personally.  You weren’t born rich.  You don’t get to walk away happily from one bankruptcy, after another, after another, after another, and still be called “financially savvy”.  You don’t get to insult people on a deeply personal level, and still be seen as anything other than a sour old crank.  You are, in every way imaginable, living in a different reality than Donald Trump.  And, no, by associating with his name–his brand–you will not be granted access to it, either

I’ve heard it said that the appeal stems from our natural disposition to be attracted to Alpha Males.  The problem is that, unlike Trump, Alpha Males don’t cry at every slight and retort that’s directed at them.  I don’t think that there’s a man in recent memory, who has taken the public stage, who exhibits a thinner skin than Donald Trump.  (Not to mention his fear of germs, and paranoia about people “being fair to him” when all he does is behave like a total jackass towards individuals who haven’t even provoked his ire.)

So am I saying that he should be disqualified from the presidency on account of being an incompetent, thin-skinned, pompous, insulting, crybaby, bloated simpleton, wrapped up in a narcissistic package of a special kind of clueless buffoonery?  Actually, no.  He’s a US citizen, who fits the minimum prerequisites to run for office, thus to exclude him from participating in the process would be a breach of his protected civil rights.  What I am saying is that the questions posed to him should address the separate standards he’s been able to enjoy, which someone in a less prestigious position  in society has not.  Or, put more eloquently:  “Why do you get off behaving like an entitled asshole?  And do you think that an entitled asshole is the sort of person we ought to have representing the United States to the world?”

Trump, being a weakling of man who has never come across a negative comment directed at him he could not hysterically bitch about long past its point of expiration, would probably respond predictably to such an aggressive question.  But hopeful the rest of American will break out of the spell, and ask itself how it came to be such a simple, simple man is being considered to ascend into the same league as Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.  Despite what many liberals want you to believe, shame has a place in society, and this may very well be one of them.

The Value of Life, & How We Prioritize Some Lives Over Others

Occasionally I like to write things that make me somewhat uncomfortable.  I think of it as a cerebral enema, to cleanse by mind of sinister cobwebs that, from time to time, start building nests in it if not cleared out.  The topic concerning the value of life, and the fact of how–since we can’t save all lives–we prioritize some over others with partly reasonable, partly arbitrary justifications, is a discussion I find simultaneously disturbing and necessary to have.

The initial instinct for most of us is to vehemently maintain that all lives, regardless of mediating circumstances, ought to be seen as equal to one another, and thereby equally deserving of consideration and protection.  That if we are to have a truly just society we should focus on forwarding this simple principle because it is a primary means by which to preserve impartiality and reduce disparity in the legal system, as well as reduce our personal biases on matters of moral dilemmas.  Historical events, like the American Eugenics movement of the early 20th Century, are a clear example which we can point to as an obviously immoral/unethical breech of the egalitarian mindset we strive to (albeit, not perfectly) construct our society around today.

All this is well and good, however, I’ve noticed in these sort of conversation that we tend to also leave the specific details concerning the practical application of this egalitarian principle intentionally vague and open for interpretation, primarily because by dwelling too deeply on the finer points of this moral principle we promote, we might uncover a number of factors that would reveal the ideal to be both unattainable and undesirable in reality.

Although we might say (and truly believe) that all lives are equal in worth and deserving of protection, we hardly ever hold this moral principle to be absolute.  For instance, what happens when a group of people are stranded at sea, on a sinking ship, and they need to prioritize who gets into the lifeboats first (because it’s a simple fact that somebody will have to be the first one in).  The most fair thing to do would be to let people in on a first-come-first-serve basis; however, the problem then arises as to the inevitable fact that this sort of laissez-faire approach to the dilemma will create a situation in which a disproportionate number of people saved will be those most physically capable of getting to the front of the line.  In other words, just about all the children on the boat will potentially be left behind to sink.

“Fine, so let the children on first,” you might say.  But why is the life of an 8 year old worth more than that of a 20 year old in this scenario?  The latter hasn’t lived long enough to truly grow-up and experience life yet, either.  S/he might even be on the path to achieve something unimaginably beneficial for all of mankind?  So why would it be right to rob her/him of a chance to accomplish something in life simply because s/he had the bad luck of being born a few years before the prioritized group?  And what about the parents of the children who get priority–do they get a seat because their children depend on them for survival?  Does that then mean that the life of a parent is worth more than the life of a childless person?  By what right is this a fair system?

The point of the scenario described above is to illustrate that often situations arise that require us to prioritize one thing over another, which unfortunately can include prioritizing one life over another.  As much as it might go against our deepest moral inclinations, we have to be honest with ourselves and admit that we do in fact place more worth on some lives over others and see them as being deserving of greater protection; often depending on the situation we find ourselves in.  While the motivation and mentality of this truth is quite dissimilar from that which inspired the eugenicists of the early 20th Century, the underlying reasoning is certainly comparable.  And, to put it a bit controversially, this underlying reasoning does have a line of rationality behind it.  When it comes to the sort of dilemma presented above, one is faced with the harsh fact that to stubbornly hold on to the ideal of saving everybody, can yield a situation where you save nobody.  In which case, regardless of your good, sound, moral intention, it would have been equally useful if you had done nothing at all.

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).