O'Brien's Map of the World

By Hans Sherrer

July 29,2000

Beginning from our earliest living moments, each of us constructs what can be referred to as a mental “map of the world.” A map of the world is like a mental road map of how someone views the world. This mental map serves as an interface between what we are exposed to in the physical world, and how we internally evaluate that information. It provides a context and a reference point for understanding that external information. All incoming information is filtered through our mental map and categorized according to our conscious and subconscious ideas about the world and what we consider our place in it to be.

This mental map is not intrinsically static, but it can be fluid and change shape if someone is exposed to a sufficient influence. Typically, the influence necessary to alter one's mental map is an event of life-shattering intensity, such as a divorce, the death of a loved one, or imprisonment. However, events of a lesser intensity can distort it.

We respond to perceived information in accordance with the outline of our mental map, and it is precisely an attempt to influence those perceptions and the shape of the map itself, that all advertising of products and ideas is directed. Propaganda, for example, is a form of advertising a political agenda by using the psychological techniques developed to induce consumers to purchase products they otherwise might not want or need to purchase.

There has been an intense struggle for centuries between people whose mental maps are in conflict about the role of self-directed autonomy in the life of an individual. In general terms, one of these sides is comprised of individuals who believe that people should abandon or otherwise not assert their sovereignty and accept subservience to an omnipotent “power over” them, and the other side is made up of people who think they have a right to “rule” themselves (self-rule, as opposed to coercively controlling others) and engage in “free, conscious activity.” [1]

Perhaps one of the most vivid portrayals of the inevitable clash between these two radically contrary views of life was the events that led up to, and that occurred after, the arrest of Winston Smith and his friend, Julia, in George Orwell's 1984. [2]

By day, Winston and Julia were dutiful government employees who appeared to obey the innumerable rules of the authoritarian state they lived in. By night, however, they engaged in an unapproved love relationship in a room they had rented without government approval. Unbeknownst to Winston and Julia, the authorities were monitoring their illicit affair and they were eventually arrested and imprisoned.

Winston's interrogator was an official named O'Brien. As part of his treatment, Winston was asked over a period of time what 2+2 equaled. Every time that Winston responded with the correct answer, 4, his body was shocked, with electricity. Likewise, if O'Brien held up four fingers and Winston responded four fingers, Winston was again shocked. The education of Winston had been deficient, because according to the state the correct answer was five. O'Brien's task was to modify Winston's mental map of the world so that he would believe to the core of his soul that 2+2 equaled 5; not 4. Winston's mental state would either be altered to the authorities' satisfaction or he would lose his life in the process.

Thinking that what O'Brien wanted was for him to say that 2+2 equaled 5, Winston dutifully began to respond that the answer was 5. The electric shocks, however, continued. O'Brien didn't want Winston to say that 2+2 equaled 5, but to believe it as fervently as he believed when his interrogation began that 2+2 equaled 4. After a period of time Winston was reduced to a wretched physical shell of what he had been when he was first imprisoned.

One of the personal facts the authorities had compiled about Winston was that his worst fear was of rats. O'Brien's final step to put Winston's "mind right" was to take him to the most dreaded room in the building. As a mask with a caged rat was strapped to Winston's face, he mentally snapped and screamed out for O'Brien to torture Julia instead. Julia underwent a similar ordeal involving her worst nightmare that was equally successful at inducing her to betray and abandon her love for Winston. As the book ended, Winston and Julia happened to meet and they were both indifferent to each other. The state was successful on the most fundamental level at altering both Winston's and Julia's personalities -- their mental and spiritual maps of the world that had originally drawn them together.

The relevance of Winston's and Julia's fictional ordeal is that at any given time the American government subjects millions of its own citizens to physical, psychological, and financial punishment, for things as inane as the forbidden love that Winston and Julia shared. Some of these people are real criminals, but the large majority are simply people of independent spirit whose mental map of the world will not make them willingly subservient to the government. The mechanism being used for the oppression of mental transgressors in this country is the law enforcement system that has overseen a more than 1000% expansion in the number of people imprisoned since 1973 - from less than 200,000 to more than 2 million. There has also been a corresponding percentage increase in people held under the yoke of probation and parole, and those people now number over 4 million at any given time. These dramatic increases have occurred in spite of a relatively small percentage population increase in this country and a significantly lower crime rate today than in 1973.

The dramatic increase in the pervasiveness of the law enforcement system that is reflected in its direct control of over 6 million adults, has been accomplished by criminalizing activities that hadn't been codified previously as criminal, and by increasing the severity and penalties for activities that had been.

This extensive criminalization process has predominantly involved activities that can be categorized as “blameless,” i.e., there is no identifiable, particular, or complaining victim. These blameless types of “crimes” are known as malum prohibitum offenses, and they are comprised of acts that are only considered to be illegal because they have been declared by a political agency to be prohibited. Typically, these political prohibitions relate to the regulation of one's personal, moral, or financial conduct, and to the regulation of business activities. Such prohibitions are added, changed, or eliminated based on nothing but the political considerations that prevail at a given point in time. Consequently, they lack the permanence or justifiability of personally injurious crimes such as murder, rape and burglary that are rooted in the enduring human condition, irrespective of any political pronouncement. [3]

A defining reason why blameless offenses are radically different than historically recognized crimes, is that murder, arson, rape, etc., involve a perpetrator that criminal blame can be assigned to for the infliction of an injury against an identifiable victim. Politically created blameless offenses have also been referred to as victimless crimes. That is a misnomer, however, because the accused is the victim in all prosecutions based on a “blameless” offense.

The more absurd these politically-generated prohibitions and regulations become, the more effective they are at enabling the controlling political powers in this country to identify people who have a tendency to mentally deviate from their politically-approved map of the world. If someone doesn't fall into line and blindly comply with the petty, personal prohibitions, or business regulations that are the functional equivalent of O'Brien demanding that 2+2 = 5, then it is an indicator they may not comply with ones that are more expansive and invasive. So various political enactments assist the authorities in identifying people for monitoring, investigation, and possible persecution. It is these people who have the qualities necessary for them to make the natural and obvious observation made by the boy in the well-known fable: that the Emperor wasn't wearing any clothes. The people who blithely ignored the Emperor's nakedness possessed the mental map of people who today mindlessly follow government edicts that more independent-minded people are being prosecuted by the millions for violating. These prosecuted people typically have an independent entrepreneurial bent, in contrast with the bureaucratic frame of mind possessed by the people involved in prosecuting them, and those people who aren't considered for prosecution. This is reflected in the fact that although bureaucrats comprise around 15% of the employed adults in this country, public officials comprise approximately 1/10th of 1% of all criminal prosecutions in America. [4]

What once might have been legitimately referred to as the criminal justice system can no longer be called that with a straight face. That system has been transformed in the space of several decades into what can be characterized as a law enforcement network that is only superficially concerned with “public safety.” This country's law enforcement network now revolves around identifying people whose mental maps of the world differ from what is politically acceptable.

The real world impact of these political policies is that the overwhelming percentage of the people who are being criminally prosecuted today wouldn't have been criminally prosecuted less than 30 years ago. This is true because their politically-manufactured offenses either didn't exist, or if they did, they were in a significantly different or less severe form. The structure of the criminal prosecution process today is being used as an instrument of brutal political persecution that is holocaustic in its scope, purpose, and impact on the lives of tens of millions of politically-disenfranchised people who are innocent of any real criminal wrongdoing.

Yet the causes, effects, and importance of this politically-driven program of oppression are concealed from the general public by the popular news media's reliance on, and wide distribution of, government press releases and other forms of advertising used to justify and promote the nationwide buildup of what is increasingly being recognized as the prison-industrial complex. As this is occurring, the law enforcement network is maintaining the physical form of the criminal justice system and age-old catch phrases are relied on to maintain the public image that its function continues to be a concern for maintaining “public safety.” This is one reason why what relatively little serious crime there is disproportionately occupies around 60% or more of a typical local television newscast, and is correspondingly misrepresented on radio, in newspapers, and in political speeches.

The criminal prosecution process is being used as a tool to enforce literally hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of political pronouncements. The consequence to people identified as transgressors of political prohibitions can be as personally catastrophic as those suffered by Winston and Julia in 1984. Cumulatively, millions of blameless people have been convicted of politically-prohibited offenses that don't involve an injury to an identifiable victim, except for the accused's victimization by the state. Many of these people have been, and are being, imprisoned for years, and, in many cases, for decades. These imprisoned people suffer the attendant financial, physical, and emotional devastation that imprisonment inevitably causes.

The more someone believes in engaging in “free, conscious activity,” the more likely they are to be targeted for the state's attention and possible prosecution. This is because the mental map of such people is most likely to conflict with O'Brien's map of the world, which is possessed by the type of people who create and enforce political prohibitions, and who are most conscientious about toeing the line by obeying them.

This is a particularly relevant concern for people who have a freedom-oriented map of the world. After all, who is more likely to be targeted for scrutiny by people who act on the presumption that the state has the need and the right to regulate all aspects of life than someone who thinks that when left alone the interaction of people is self-regulating?

The effective disenfranchisement of everyone in this country from political effectiveness except for the wealthy and well-connected, and the realistic inability of the electoral underclass to emigrate to a land of visualized freedom - such as America used to be - has created a multifaceted dilemma for the independently-minded people in this country.

Independently-minded people faced that same dilemma in the former Soviet Union. Tens of millions of Soviet citizens were imprisoned for offenses that were simply political crimes. [5] With a few prominent exceptions, such as writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and physicist Andrei Sakharov, the majority .of independent-thinking Russians chose to try and minimize their discomfort by presenting the public facade of being a good Soviet citizen, while privately expressing their real attitudes to like-minded people. [6] They could only hope they weren't discovered by the authorities. However, as the author of Message From Moscow related, agonizing psychic conflicts can occur within people who try to be publicly convincing in proclaiming that 2+2=5, while privately trying to maintain a grip on reality. [7]

The philosophically unbridgeable gulf between O'Brien's map of the world and the one possessed by autonomous people is a more compelling issue today than it was when 1984 was published in 1949. The real life mechanisms of physical control, surreptitious and overt surveillance, and psychological coercion far exceed what George Orwell depicted in his prophetic fictional horror story of political oppression in the modern world. Monitored borders, the law enforcement network, and pervasive and interlocking forms of personal, professional and financial oversight are symptomatic of the United States' transmutation into a gigantic minimum security prison that is administered by people possessing O'Brien's map of the world.

On the personal level, an effective defense against being psychologically and intellectually infected by O'Brien's map of the world is to cultivate relationships and share ideas that will contribute to being inoculated from its many subtle forms.

It is much more problematic, however, to avoid becoming entrapped by the law enforcement network for allegedly violating one or more of the innumerable, politically-enacted prohibitions and requirements that can identify one as an independently-minded person who tends to act on one's own judgment. There is no Pollyanna solution to this grave situation, and there is no magic wand that when waved will make one safely anonymous in our increasingly privateless society.

Life is, and always will be, precarious and unpredictable. Given where the great majority of Americans are -- educationally, politically and psychologically -- perhaps all one can do is act in accordance with one's principles to the degree one feels comfortable and let the chips fall as they may.


Note: This essay was originally published in The Voluntaryist #113, 2Q2002, p. 4.

[1] The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology, Erich Fromm, Bantam, NY, 1968. The phrase “free, conscious activity” is used on p. 60.

[2] 1984, George Orwell, 1949, which is also known as Nineteen Eighty-Four.

[3] These are known as malum in se crimes, and they have been recognized as crimes for thousands of years in cultures throughout the world. Even societies that didn't have formal written laws recognized these crimes because by their nature they are intrinsically destructive of cooperative social relations.

[4] There are slightly less than a million felony state and federal prosecutions yearly, and approximately 1,000 of these involve public officials.

[5] See The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Harper & Row, NY, 1974. See also, volume 2, published in 1975 and volume 3 published in 1979.

[6] From Under The Rubble, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn et al., Regnery, 1989. See esp. The Smatterers, an essay by Solzhenitsyn in which he castigates the wishy washiness of the Soviet intelligentsia for the excuses they made for taking the safe road of going along with the status quo and publicly doing nothing that might contribute to changing it.

[7] Message From Moscow, An Observer, Vintage, NY, 1971. Numerous examples are related by the author throughout the book, and see esp. chapter 8.