WASHINGTON - One of the few rules I live by, and repeat in print ad nauseam, is that there is no such thing as a thought crime. I codify this to: If What Happens in the Brain Stays in the Brain, No Sin Has Occurred, However Awful the Thought. I recently began to reconsider the wisdom of this rule. It happened during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh.
The event was immensely important. The fate of the country was at stake. And yet, driven by primordial impulses beyond my control, every time I looked at a video or photograph of Kavanaugh testifying before a packed committee room, all I could focus on was lawyer-type ladies in the audience in skirts or dresses, with their legs crossed. Mortifyingly, I do the same for pictures of funerals, because women look great in black. I regret all of this deeply, sincerely apologize to the world’s 4 billion women, and I hereby repent of it.
While I am at it:
I habitually put butter on steak. That is not my thought crime. It may be unhealthful and disgusting, but some great chefs do it, too. My thought crime is that I have never eaten any meat — from hamburger to Chateaubriand — without at least briefly thinking: “I wonder how that would taste smothered in maple syrup?”
I have never acted on this and don’t intend to because I still have a modicum of self-respect. But the thought is persistent, revolting and just plain Wrong. I regret it.
I do not commit road rage. It is stupid and dangerous, and I don’t do it and never would. But when another driver does something profoundly annoying — one of my bugaboos is people too timid to ease out into the intersection to turn left across traffic, instead squatting ugly and motionless at the corner like a fire hydrant, forcing everyone behind them to miss the light — I create graphic and violent scenarios in my head for how I would punish them. A favorite is radioing in for a helicopter with a giant, dangling electromagnet. For this I am sorry.
I have stopped telling ethnic jokes, which I used to share all the time on the theory — which I genuinely believe — that when told by reasonable people, these jokes are about the silliness of stereotypes, and do not reflect racial contempt. But I am now convinced that they do have the capacity to hurt. My favorite targets were Jews, Polish people, black people, Puerto Ricans, Republicans, Italians, Indians from India and Indians from, like, Oklahoma.
My point is, all that is now well in my past. But they are also still in my brain, and here’s the bad part: I tell ’em to myself all the time, keeping them alive, nurturing them, like the way you occasionally water cacti. I am thinking of one now. It involves a bicycle. Heh. Heh-heh. I am sorry. I really am. Heh. Heh-heh. I am sorry.
Perhaps the worst is that I admit I am viscerally prejudiced against certain groups of people based entirely on their physical characteristics and not the content of their character. So far, it is only in my head and I pray that I never exercise this prejudice in the workplace or elsewhere. I have several categories but will reveal only one here, with shame: people with a high gum-to-tooth ratio.
I know what you are thinking. You are thinking I am an inexcusable excuse for a human being, and someone should impale me with a beach umbrella, open it, then hang me by the handle from a chandelier.
See? Are you really any better than I am?
Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The Washington Post and writes “Below the Beltway,” a weekly humor column. © 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group