What if you were held accountable for all of your thoughts?

image via thenewsdoctors.com

Yesterday, in the midst of editing one of the worst papers I have ever had the pleasure of reading, I sent the following text to my husband:

“I literally have so much hatred for the woman who wrote this [expletives eliminated] paper. I want to force feed her every word of this paper so she can feel my pain on a physical level.”

First, I’ll note that I have never and most likely will never meet the writer in question, who I’m sure is an absolutely lovely, intelligent person whose company I would very much enjoy. Second, I’ll point out that I see no future in which I physically force anyone to eat anything, never mind 40 pages of printer paper, because I am probably the least assertive person on the planet and “force” isn’t exactly in my toolkit.

Needless to say, this text isn’t representative of any real plan or act I would be capable of committing. However, this text is definitely representative of the thoughts running through my head as I made my way through page 26 of 40. So, in light of discussions on mens rea and intention, what would the world be like if we were held accountable for every single thought in our heads?

Of course, this brings up the image of an Orwelian world with Thought Police and ‘Big Brother is Watching You‘ signs littering the streets. But stepping aside from this apocalyptic iteration, what would it be like every murderously angry thought behind the wheel in rush-hour traffic was a punishable offence? More broadly, how much do our thoughts really matter if they never materialize into action? How much do they matter if they never materialize into intention?

Let’s continue the example of road rage. I love to take out my frustrations and stresses on people who I think drive…less competently than myself. One of my favourite driving pastimes is making up new expletives and insults, which I usually combine with some sort of very explicit threat. The drivers to whom these less-than-friendly remarks are directed are none the wiser, and I get wherever I am going without any actual incident. Further, when given the opportunity for an actual confrontation, I will do ANYTHING to actually avoid it. Violent or aggressive thoughts/texts aside, I’m fairly pacifistic. I actually had a “Make Love, Not War” bumper sticker on my first car. But, someone reading my texts or my mind (Professor X, where you at?) might find that I have the mens rea for assault of various degrees at different points throughout my day. Should I be held accountable for that?

Invisibilia, a podcast from NPR, actually covered a very similar question in their first ever show, “The Secret History of Thoughts.” One of their subjects for the episode experienced – and, really, still experiences – truly violent and murderous thoughts. He has thoughts about stabbing strangers, strangling his dog, carving his wife completely open…but before these thoughts began, he was a super chill California surfer dude, and that’s the dude he continued to try to be while struggling with these thoughts. The subject ended up receiving a form of mindfulness therapy called Exposure and Response Prevention, which adheres to the newest approach to thoughts, that they have no meaning and are just, for the most part, thoughts. The controversial therapy actually goes so far as to put a knife in the hands of a subject with murderous thoughts and have them hold the knife up to the throat of the therapist. The process is meant to show that a thought can simply be without having any meaning as to one’s actual intentions or person.

So,  if someone thinks about doing something but doesn’t do it, or does something different that’s also not a great thing to do, but is better to do than the thing they thought about doing, should they be held accountable for the original thought that never really took hold in action? Or, less awkwardly, to what extent should the thoughts and intentions of people be considered when attempting to understand the criminality of their actions?

– Alyssa Jervis, 2016

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