Can We Really Ban Thought Policing?

I’ve seen the word thought-policing used (here, for instance) to describe a form of abuse in which one person tries to control the inside of someone else’s head. The abuser wants to know what the other thinks and feels and gets angry when they think or feel the wrong things. This is described unambiguously as wrong and bad. Instead, we’re supposed to focus on the actions of the people close to us and let their thoughts be a mystery.

This is very appealing. I would rather be judged for the parts of me I can control (kind of, more or less) than the parts of me that are at once most intimate and most out of my power.

But, at the very least, I’m suspicious thought-policing is a more natural (of course, not necessarily a more pleasant and effectiveway of interacting  than “focus on actions.”

We want to judge people and make decisions about them based not on what they do in a narrow sense but on “who they are”–a lot of which is how they feel about things, what they believe, what’s in their heads.  That’s probably one reason people tend to value sincerity so much. Maybe the abusive part is directly attacking  someone for being the wrong person instead of just quietly judging them.

But the judgments we make about “who other people are”–even though we don’t usually trumpet them–often become obvious through behavior, nuance of speech, and tone of voice, and it’s hard not to take them to heart. And if you’re explicitly hurt or angry about  others’ judgments, real or imagined, instead of simply internalizing them or shrugging them off, it’s hard not to engage in thought-policing yourself. It’s painful to be thought ill of, or to think that people think ill of you, even if “what they think” isn’t really any of your business.

As I put it in college, slightly paraphrased:

We want to change to please the other person (or vice versa), but the only kind of change that would suffice we have no right to ask and they, likely, have no ability to give.  Changing one’s nature cannot be done on a dime to please someone else. The “proper”/logical emotion for a conflict of mere action is anger; the proper emotion for a conflict of natures is disgust.  Or tolerance-shrug-distance, which amounts to something similar.   (And these reactions are reactions of the disgusted/tolerant’s nature, not mere choices or actions, but the other person wants to beg the person to do the impossible—love, admire, whatever, genuinely.  And sometimes blames them for failing to do so.

Condemning thought-policing also ignores the fact that language–and maybe even thought itself–is action. Pretty much any opinion you express is capable of hurting someone, both in itself and in what it could inspire people to do. And even if you don’t find yourself saying uncomfortably much of what you think and believe, those thoughts and beliefs will inspire you to act and speak in certain ways. There’s a practical reason we want to know what’s inside other people’s heads–understanding the principles behind their actions enables us to predict their actions more accurately (I suspect) than just observing the actions.

I don’t think I believe in harshly condemning inappropriate feelings or beliefs–because I have a strong, not-yet-well-examined-but-I-suspect-there’s-something-to-it knee jerk that that is dystopian yuck; because I think doing so is usually more harmful than the feelings and beliefs under attack; and because people’s control over their thoughts and feelings is even more tenuous than their control over what we more readily call their actions. But I still find it hard to disagree with the following terrifying definition of love, which I also came up with in college:

I deny the idea that love, in its highest sense, or, perhaps, for the most meaningful definition, is an emotion.  It includes emotions; in most people, to a greater or lesser degree, it includes the wide variety of the emotions that people give the name love, although they can appear in its absence.   Emotions, however important they are to our experience of our lives, are very cheap in themselves.  Their value comes from how they structure our thought and behavior.  To say that love lies in actions is wrong; we know instinctively that to do all of the right things without feeling them is not love, or, more precisely, that love consists of action, but that in any close relationship, our attitudes and feelings, all of the contents of our selves (because it is impossible to fake them completely and convincingly and because close relationships demand their expression) become actions.   Love is a cast of mind, a set of beliefs and attitudes that structure all of one’s existence.  I cannot love in this sense.

2 replies on “Can We Really Ban Thought Policing?”

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