Follow TV Tropes



Go To

"Whether he wrote DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER, or whether he refrained from writing it, made no difference. Whether he went on with the diary, or whether he did not go on with it, made no difference. The Thought Police would get him just the same. He had committed — would still have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper — the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you."
Winston, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part 1, Chapter 1

How the Appeal to Force and the Ad Hominem are codified into law.

Whenever a dystopian, totalitarian government tries to control the speech and actions of its citizens, it'll label dissent and criticism as Thoughtcrime, and quell Thoughtcrime by every means possible. The clever trick here, since in most stories the government has no access to these thoughts, is that it trains the oppressed to oppress themselves via internalizing what is seen as disapproved thought. As well, propaganda exhorts people to turn in their friends and family.

If a reason is ever given at all, apart from the obvious, Thoughtcrime can be explained as "intrusive thoughts," and their repression leads to "a happier society".

It is nearly impossible to remove Thoughtcrime policies once enacted. The definition tends to expand until whistleblowing is illegal—after all, only a communist/fascist/atheist/religious fanatic etc. would be deceptive enough to claim that our glorious and beneficent regime could possibly make errors, suffer from wishful thinking, or be corrupt.

Of course, by inherent nature, trying to not think what they forbid you to think about will always fail - and expect one or two citizens to be trapped by this thought process and then get captured by the Secret Police (or worse) for their "trouble". Taken to extremes, this may lead to everyone getting punished. Punishment includes hard labor in a prison camp, torture up to the point of a forced confession and a Kangaroo Court show trial, and execution.

Naturally, when no one is allowed to guard the guards, the guards abuse their power left, right and center. Add to that the fact that no person is capable of getting everything right, and even the best-intentioned crimethink laws end up convincing people that their purpose is to keep the masses from knowing too much.

Overlaps with Culture Police. Compare with The Heretic, for a religious equivalent. Related to The Evils of Free Will. In more nuanced stories, some of these guys sincerely believe they're using Brainwashing for the Greater Good. For others, it's just business as usual. As a means of propaganda, if the methods combating Thoughtcrime are known to the public, the government (or their corporate benefactors) might attempt to paint it in a lighter vein by calling them Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • In Psycho-Pass, Japan is an isolated country ruled by the Sibyl System, a massive surveillance network that is able to quantify the human mind and anaylse the psychological profile of every single citizen of Japan. This profile is converted into a numerical value, known as a Crime Coefficient. So, if someone has a mental disorder, dissents too much or expresses too much negative emotions, he is either sent to mandatory therapy, or if the Coefficient is high enough and the subject refuses to get treatment, he is declared a "latent criminal" and thus eliminated. Subverted in that the system is composed of the brains of sociopaths, some of whom are Japan's worst criminals; they were selected for their ability to commit abhorrent violence without any sense of conscience, emotion or afterthought.

    Comic Books 
  • 2000 AD:
    • Anderson: Psi-Division: Played for dark laughs when Anderson is driving her Lawmaster before suddenly stopping to beat up several confused perps who only looked in her direction. She tells control to pick them up for "insulting a Judge and resisting arrest".
    • Nemesis the Warlock: Under Torquemada's rule over Termight, it is illegal to even think of opposing him, and his Terminators scan the planet day and night to look for thought offenders. As seen above in the page image, Purity's father was sent to the vaporization vats for committing thoughtcrime in his sleep.
  • After he acquires Brainiac technology in the bad ending of Injustice 2, Injustice vs. Masters of the Universe reveals that Superman has expanded his totalitarian activities by arresting and jailing those who have criminal thoughts.
  • Low: In the Underwater City Voldin, optimism is a capital crime.
  • The Punisher 2099: When Dr. Doom puts the Punisher in charge of the police force, he starts prosecuting people for having criminal impulses.

    Fan Works 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Equilibrium takes this to an even more disturbing conclusion: "Sense Offense" or emotion crime. Their leader extolls "the revolutionary concept of the hate crime." Dubbing the "hate" the important part of the "crime" essentially makes this entire trope Not So Crazy Anymore.
  • Fortress (1992): The "unauthorized thought processes", i.e. erotic fantasies. Brennick receives an electronic shock from Zed-10 after it reads his mind during REM sleep.
  • Minority Report: Most of the "crimes" which the Precrime Division stops seem to be this. Suspects are caught in the attempt to commit a murder at times, but many don't even get that far. In the latter case, an ordinary charge of attempted murder could be made. For most though, their only "crime" is just wanting to commit a murder, but not actually doing so. They're all detained without trial regardless. Becomes outright dystopian as the convicts, rather than being regularly imprisoned or executed, are tortured with footage of the precognition every waking moment, all to ensure they keep the criminal thoughts that got them convicted in the first place.
  • THX 1138, a Nineteen Eighty-Four-esque story of a dystopian state where worker drones are forced to take emotion-numbing pills.
  • Zardoz: The Eternals are a society of immortal humans who spend much of their time performing "second level meditation". Those that project "negative" auras are referred to as "renegades", summarily punished by being aged into senility since no Eternal can die.

  • The Trope Codifier is Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. To hammer it home, the main character of the novel, Winston Smith, once wrote in his diary, "Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime IS death."
  • Christian Nation: The US Constitution is supplanted by the Fifty Blessings, religiously-inspired laws, many of which are vague or unenforceable, dealing with such vagaries as coveting. The laws against 'sexual deviancy' are all too clear, and there comes a presumption that any single person above a certain age must be gay.
  • In the short story "Harrison Bergeron", being smarter than another person is outlawed, and smart people must wear devices to disrupt their thoughts lest they take advantage of others with their intelligence (naturally, the Handicapper General is very intelligent, and free of this impediment to do her duties).
  • Industrial Society and Its Future: One of the things Kaczynski attacks modern leftism over is seeking to rid people of even bad (e.g. racist or sexist) thoughts through education or propaganda, going beyond simply getting equal rights for minorities etc which he agrees with.
  • The School for Good Mothers: Prior to completing the program at the titular school, Frida's counselor chastises her for the results of her brain scan, which show feelings of shame, guilt and desire whenever she looked at footage of her interactions with Tucker, a father in a similar program. Despite her protests that they never even kissed, the counselor berates her for wanting to and even blames Frida for inviting Tucker's attention, which she had tried to discourage. This is one of the factors used by the judge to terminate her parental rights.
  • Victoria sees the titular state forbid the use of any technology that wasn't in general use by the late 1930s, including television, computers, and cars capable of making more than purely local trips. The good people of Victoria attempt to write this into law, to the horror of the heroes who imagine the police state needed to enforce it. Instead, they settle on making it a cultural more, much harder to change, and encouraging people to ostracize, ridicule and abuse their technology-using neighbors.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Babylon 5, the Nightwatch organization was set up to report not just actions, but potentially seditious attitudes (as could be "inferred" from casual remarks and such) among Earth Alliance personnel and citizens. As Earth Alliance slid further into despotism, it is mentioned that the Psi Corps was routinely used by the Clark dictatorship to telepathically scan for supposedly seditious (anti-regime) thoughts.
  • Class of '09: Vivienne, Tayo's wife, is arrested by the FBI in 2034 as she's written a book and associated with students that both have anti-AI views. The AI views them as a possible epicenter of a plot to destroy it. Under its system, simply having thoughts in that direction is a crime, even if they're not actually acted on. She's released when the AI is later shut down.
  • Doctor Who:
  • Touched on in the aptly named Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Thought Criminal". The criminal-of-the-week is a man who has constructed a sex torture dungeon across the street from a playground, fantasizes about using it, and has all the signs of becoming a rapist and murderer of children. However, he hasn't actually done anything yet. The episode then revolves around arresting a man for something he might act on (and he almost certainly will), or letting him walk and taking the chance of future victims. The jury finds him not guilty, possibly with this trope in mind.
  • The L Word: Tasha believes even thinking of cheating is cheating. Later it comes back on her when she's attracted to Jamie, as her girlfriend Alice notes.
  • Reaper follows the example of Christianity under Religion in showing one of the escapees from Hell being someone whose only sin was having sinful thoughts. The main character outright questions the idea that someone can be condemned to eternal torment for merely thinking sinfully but never acting on it.
  • Star Trek: Voyager: In the episode "Random Thoughts", the crew of the Voyager come across a people who are extremely telepathic, so sensitive that any extreme emotions would incite them to act out on those feelings; having violent thoughts is a crime in and of itself. Torres is put on trial for having a brief violent thought when someone bumps into her, and Tuvok's investigation into the planet's culture finds a sort of "violent thoughts" Black Market. Of course, it examines the issue that when something is so taboo, it means their own people are unable to handle it when confronted with the situation.

  • David Byrne: "The Dream Police" takes place in a setting where police officers and courts can charge and convict someone for dreaming the wrong things.
  • From the Prince song "Electric Chair":
    If a man is considered guilty
    For what goes on in his mind
    Then give me the electric chair
    For all my future crimes-Oh!

    Newspaper Comics 
  • The Boondocks: At one point, Robert punishes his grandson, Riley, not for thinking about doing something nefarious, but for looking like he was thinking it. Huey calls him out for this Disproportionate Retribution, but it's worth noting that actually Riley was thinking of causing chaos at the time. Robert just had no real proof.

  • Some scriptures of The Bible point out that thinking of a sin is just as bad as doing it in God's eyes. For example, a literal reading of the commandment "thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife" would indicate that the proscription is not merely against the act of adultery, but the very thought or feeling of envy. Indeed, the Book of Matthew in The Four Gospels states that a man who lusts after a woman "hath committed adultery with her already in his heart."
  • Some of the most notable examples of thoughtcrime are the concepts of sin and heresy in some religions. Couple it with guilt and fear of eternal punishment for even thinking about it and an omniscient Judge who knows and sees all and you have a very effective method for auto-enforcement of policies.
  • A few of the classic Seven Deadly Sins, like Envy and Lust, seem to have more to do with thoughts or feelings than actions.

    Stand-Up Comedy 
  • Played for laughs in Paula Poundstone's standup routine.
    I live in San Francisco where the parking is impossible. I saw a sign on a guy's garage that said "Don't even think about parking here". So you know what I did? I sat right there and I thought about it. I yelled up at his window "Hey buddy, I'm thinking about it. Go ahead, call the cops. I'll just tell them I was thinking about something else."

    Tabletop RPG 

    Video Games 
  • Fate/Grand Order: The third Lostbelt is one where Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, achieved immortality and conquered the world. He did achieve world peace, but only because the humans living there are kept illiterate, have no concept of family, and aren't allowed to venture outside of their villages. If any person shows signs of "Confucianism", which is to say learning how to read, making art that doesn't worship the emperor, or leaving their village to explore, Qin Shi Huang's response is a Colony Drop that wipes out their entire village to make sure they didn't spread their ideas around.
  • Psionically Ascended empires in Stellaris are able to pass the "Thought Enforcement" edict. The Flavor Text for it is as follows: "Telepaths monitoring the citizenry for incorrect thoughts will make corrections as they find them".


    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender has the higher-ups of Ba Sing Se brainwashing everyone who dares to mention that there's a century-long war going on in the whole world outside the walls. The resident Lovable Rogue had this inflicted upon him, which led to his death.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: Our Town, the town of equality founded by Starlight Glimmer, shows frequent usage of this. By the time the Mane Six arrive, the ponies living there are so afraid of Starlight that they willingly subject themselves to brainwashing if they find themselves thinking "unequal" thoughts, lest Starlight find out herself and do something even more horrible to them.
  • In an episode of Rocko's Modern Life, Rocko is desperately looking for a place to park his car. He finds an empty spot with a sign that says "Don't even think about parking here." He does think about it for a second, but a policeman sees him and gives him a ticket for it.

    Real Life 
  • Just about any society or organization that advances a moral or ethical point of view is going to attempt to regulate the way people think, if only sometimes very subtly. Religions are old pros at this, introducing concepts such as "guilt" and "original sin" to inculcate in their believers that they are fundamentally flawed and must guard against the temptation to even entertain disturbing thoughts. Political correctness, peer pressure, propaganda, public education and social engineering are some of the common ways this is carried out in the secular world.
  • Strangely averted with British laws regarding homosexuality. All of these laws were about men having relationships with other men, with no mention made of lesbian or bisexual women; this was because the government actually thought that if they changed the law and made lesbianism illegal, then they would be introducing the concept of lesbianism to the public and thus giving "innocent women" the idea that it was possible. This still had the intended effect, however, with many women being unable to safely come out and some even feeling pressured to marry men anyway.
  • For several decades, in many European and Anglophone jurisdictions, murder has been punished more severely if it was premeditated. Such jurisdictions often classify murder under different categories (like the Three Degrees of Murder in American Courts), which carry different sentences, and premeditation affects the sentencing if the defendant is found guilty.
  • Following the Charlie Hebdo massacre (cartoonists and journalists who were killed by Islamic terrorists) in France on January 7, 2015, which caused the memetic message "Je suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie") to spread on the Internet as a way of defending free speech, journalist Nathalie Saint-Cricq proposed, on public television, to 'spot and treat' schoolchildren who "were not Charlie". This didn't just include those who made genuine apologies for terrorism/religious extremism, but also those who expressed doubts about the message, criticized what the cartoonists did before they were killed or didn't respect moments of silence. This was horribly ironic in defense of people who were essentially murdered for "thoughtcrime" themselves.
  • "Gay conversion therapy" seeks to extinguish homosexuality, whether the subject has engaged in any sexual behavior or not.
  • While there are laws that make Holocaust denial illegal and punishable in Germany, it is actually considered a special case of hate speech, even without making any statements about the victims. As such, it only becomes a crime when addressed to a public audience. Private conversation or correspondence is not affected, even when overheard by bystanders.
  • Under the reign of Henry VIII, it became treason to even think ill of the king, or to "imagine" his death. The latter at least had some logic behind it; you could undermine the king by spreading rumors that he was fatally ill, triggering a Succession Crisis. However it got to the stage that his own doctors were afraid to inform Henry VIII that he was dying, which was necessary so he could seek absolution for his sins.
  • The Khmer Rouge, among their many crimes against humanity and Disproportionate Retribution, made certain thoughts punishable by death in their campaign to reset Cambodia to "year zero." This included thinking about the past, holding any religious beliefs, showing too much individuality,note  or showing any attachment to Western ideals.
  • The idea behind "re-education camps" in Nazi Germany and Communist countries.
    • Specifically Germany under the Nazis extended the pre-existing ban on homosexual acts, Paragraph 175, to include homosexual thoughts.
    • Both of them, among other oppressive regimes, also imprisoned people or sought to re-educate them just for having beliefs which contradicted the official one. It didn't matter whether they actually tried to violently or peacefully resist (though that of course would also get you punished). Just writing or speaking things which criticized or disagreed with the government would be enough for you to be imprisoned, even killed.
  • At least one street sign seen in New York City and elsewhere in the 1980s read "Don't even think about parking here!" Weird Al objects.
  • After Kim Jong-il's death, the North Korean government sent anyone who didn't seem upset enough to The Gulag.
  • A certain Todd Nickerson has made some videos where he admits to being a pedophile. Despite making it clear he doesn't want to be this way and never intends to actually molest a kid, a lot of people still hate him just for having such urges in the first place. The same reaction has occurred when other comments that could be called "positive" about pedophiles/pedophilia are made, even if simply "That person is good for not acting on their urges" or "Therapy should be provided for them" and "Maybe we can find a cure". Cue many suggestions that the cure for pedophilia is death. Anything other than just stating condemnation, for some, seems to be unforgivable.
  • In the United States and other justice systems, the intention to do something illegal is an important component in determining whether a person has committed a crime. Conspiracy and "intent to distribute" charges are crimes about the intent to commit a crime rather than actually doing it. Many other actions are only illegal when committed with mens rea ("a guilty mind"). If you slap someone in the face because you intend to hurt them, it's a crime. If you slap someone in the face because they're unconscious and you're trying to wake them up, you're probably fine. The act is the same, but your thoughts during the act affect whether it's a crime.
  • Criminal conspiracy statutes can edge into this territory sometimes, especially if arrests are made before the conspiracy gets past the initial planning stage. In the US however, at least one "overt act" must have been taken "in furtherance of the conspiracy" for a conviction, but that can be minor. This act need not even be illegal-e.g. renting a car which is meant to be the getaway vehicle for bank robbers, if it's shown this was the intent of the action, could be the basis of a conspiracy charge.
  • For children, having a "(bad) attitude" and needing an "attitude adjustment" could count. Showing any annoyance can lead to punishment or more/worse punishment because parents and teachers seem to expect their children to not have emotions.
    • This is something the military categorises as "dumb insolence" or "eyeballing" - not receiving an admonishment meekly or with appropriate deference to senior rank. This is something generations of Drill Sergeants and instructing NCOs have learnt to recognise, even where it doesn't actually exist, and the sanction can then increase accordingly.