In the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, thoughtcrime is the criminal act of holding unspoken beliefs or doubts that oppose or question the ruling party. In the book, the government attempts to control not only the speech and actions, but also the thoughts of its subjects. Unacceptable thought is known as crimethink in Newspeak, the ideologically purified dialect of the party. In the book, Winston Smith, the main character, writes in his diary: “Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime is death.”
The Thought Police (thinkpol in Newspeak) are the secret police of the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is their job to uncover and punish thoughtcrime. The Thought Police use surveillance and psychological monitoring to find and eliminate members of society who challenge the party’s authority and ideology.
The Thought Police of Orwell and their pursuit of thoughtcrime were based on the methods used by the totalitarian states and ideologies of the 20th century. They are a satirical expression of Orwell’s “power of facing unpleasant facts” and his willingness to criticise prevailing ideas, which brought him into conflict with others and their “smelly little orthodoxies”.
The term “Thought Police”, by extension, has come to refer to real or perceived enforcement of ideological correctness.
Technology and thoughtcrime
Technology played a significant part in the detection of thoughtcrime in Nineteen Eighty-Four—with the ubiquitous telescreens which could inform the government, misinform and monitor the population. The citizens of Oceania are watched by the Thought Police through the telescreens. Every movement, reflex, facial expression, and reaction is measured by this system, monitored by the Ministry of Love.
Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork.
—Part I, Chapter I, Nineteen Eighty-Four
At times, it seems as if the telescreen is constantly watching each citizen. Winston Smith recognizes that he has no idea who is behind the technology, watching him or anyone else.
If you made unexpected movements they yelled at you from the telescreen.
—Part III, Chapter I
Because of this system of surveillance, the Thought Police and the Ministry of Love become universally feared by any member of the Outer Party or any one of the ‘Proles’ who is capable (or felt by the Party to be capable) of thoughtcrime.
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See also: List of Newspeak words.