A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Read/Headscratchers

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  • Something bothers me about the way this trope is used in fiction - it first came to mind in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, but the same pattern's present in virtually all uses of the trope. Nobody ever blames the telepath for invading other people's privacy! Whenever they detect an inappropriate thought and get all "you perv, how dare you think that", nobody ever responds with "oh yeah, well how dare you invade my mind and judge me based on my private thoughts and feelings!" I know Power Incontinence is usually involved, but that shouldn't change anything. Any telepath with a decent upbringing, should understand that other people's private thoughts are sacrosanct and that, even if they can't avoid hearing them, they should at least respect other people's privacy by not shouting them from the rooftops. To do so shows they have No Social Skills at all. And in these stories, why is it that the telepath is always the Only Sane Man who thinks pure and innocent thoughts? It never gets turned around into "how would you like it if all of us could hear your thoughts all the time?" It's always focused entirely on the telepath's perspective: you'd think at least a few stories dealing with this trope would also touch on the issues of the telepath violating other people's privacy (even if the telepathy itself can't be helped, the mind-reader's public reaction to it certainly can!).
    • Hmm, thinking further on it, there was one story where this came up, albeit very briefly. I remember a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called "The Loss" where Troi, The Empath, had temporarily lost her abilities. Riker ended up losing his temper with her somehow, and basically told her that she'd always had an advantage over everyone because she could sense their feelings but not vice versa, and now that she can't do it anymore, she know how it feels to be just like everyone else. So I guess that lessens the issue, but I'd still like to see more characters who get the "you pig" reaction call out the psychic on it.
    • One Family Matters episode had Carl point out how horrendous a violation it was for Steve to read his family's mind when he temporarily got telepathy from one of his experiments, but the one important thought he read (that Laura was in love with him) was treated in all subsequent episodes as if she'd admitted it to him outright.
    • In many if not most examples of this trope the telepathy is portrayed as at least slightly involuntary. Meaning it's not a matter of the telepath invading people's minds, it's a matter of other people's thoughts invading the telepath's mind. From the perspective of the telepath, the person having pervy thoughts may as well be screaming them out loud. The teep can't help but overhear.
    • I've seen plenty of examples of people chewing out the Telepath for invading people's thoughts even when it is involuntary. In fact, on the Telepathy page they even point out that A telepath may be shunned for their power or a loner because of it.
    • Possibly a good example may be the 90s X-Men cartoon. Juggernaut is in a coma and Professor X is going through his memories. Juggernaut calls him on it. In the past when they were little, it was an accident, and Juggernaut can accept that. Right now, Professor X is doing it on purpose and has just admitted it is a violation.
    • I think the perception of just how much of a violation of privacy telepathy really is may be colored by the fact that it's generally pictured as being the exception rather than the norm, here. For comparison, most of us would probably consider it mildly silly for a blind man to complain that we're violating his privacy simply by looking at him -- but isn't that just because we generally think of having more or less functional eyesight as the natural default? What if it wasn't? If the inhabitants of the proverbial land of the blind considered their blindness the natural state of affairs...would the fate of the one-eyed man really be so different from that of our telepath then?
      • I think I found a potentially non-trivial issue with your example. The comparison of the use of telepathy upon those who don't have it (telepathy) with the use of sight upon those who don't have it (sight) was decent, but neglects to mention that there exists a defense against unwanted viewing while there usually isn't a defense against unwanted mind reading. Namely, if someone wants to avoid being looked at, they could move out of the way, hide, place themselves somewhere that they cannot be seen, etc; unless one has mental shields of some sort, it is usually impossible to stop an individual from casually looking into your thoughts.
        • If they all were really blind from the birth, there wouldn't be any shelters from unwated viewing, becasue they wouldn't find it necessary. The same goes for society, where reading mind is something out of normality.
      • It's a good analogy, but it doesn't really work. If everyone were blind, physical appearance would effectively be meaningless, and at the very least is not representative of a person. Being able to see how other people look would probe something that people wouldn't care about and wouldn't be able to actually determine at all, if everyone is blind then they can understand their physical shape, but not colour or anything purely visual. This means the sighted person can basically only access concepts which the blind society probably doesn't even have words for. However when it comes to the mind it is filled with personal, embarrassing and secret things which are fully meaningful. The mind reader in this situation would be able to obtain information which is actually of consequence and is relevant to the society.
      • What people look like might be meaningless in this context, true. Not so much, however, what they are doing when they think nobody can hear them...which is really what the main issue with telepathy is, too: not so much that somebody can peek into your head, but what might be running through your mind the very moment they do so.
    • The Dresden Files does deal with the issue of invading people's minds. In fact, invasion of other's thoughts like this by a human is a crime punished by summary execution. I've seen plenty of other instances where characters do express discomfort or paranioa at others being able to read their minds (off the top of my head, StarCraft, Ciaphas Cain, Firefly....) so it is definitely present.
    • Okay, I'm kind of relieved to find there are examples where the telepath's called out on it. There were three stories that made me wonder about this, and oddly enough they're all vampire tales. A Buffy episode where Buffy gained the ability to read minds had her being smugly judgmental of almost every single one of her friend without getting called on it, and in Twilight and True Blood, Edward and Sookie reject romantic partners because of their telepathically detected perviness, but then they hook up with someone whose mind they can't read even though that person isn't necessarily any better (and frankly, neither are they, really). So that led to my being bugged that nobody in those stories was turning the situation around, though apparently judgmental mind-readers do get chewed out in plenty of other stories.
      • In the Buffy example the entire conflict of the episode was that she couldnt control it she was being driven insane by it even and she was only "smugly superiour" when hearing the perverted thoughts of youre average teen when she started hearing the thoughts of people who had some really bad problems she only wanted it to stop.
        • But she was only being driven insane in the second half of the episode, when she started reading too many minds at once. She was having fun with it up until that point. What bugs me is that people can't help their thoughts. You can't blamed them for simply having a bad thought, if they're not acting on it in any way. Trying to repress your thoughts only makes them stronger and more uncontrollable (that's pretty much the basis for The Game). And Buffy was being a self-righteous hypocrite. She taunts Xander for thinking about sex all the time, and Wesley for having feelings for Cordelia - but what exactly does she think about when she's around Angel or Spike? It's worth noting her response a few seasons later, when Xander found out she was sleeping with Spike: "it's none of your business". Edward and Sookie get along great with people/vampires who aren't really any better than most (and in Sookie's case, way worse in some ways), it's just that psychic ignorance is bliss. Which would be understandable, except that they still judge other people for it. It's one thing to avoid people because having to read their thoughts is too much to bear. But walking around going "you suck, you suck and you suck" over other people's private thoughts? Unless the telepath doesn't have a single personal thought of their own that they wouldn't want anybody else reading, it's incredibly hypocritical. I'm just surprised more stories don't have muggles saying Screw You, Elves and calling the psychic characters out on that attitude.
      • To be fair, the fact that Buffy can be something of a self-righteous hypocrite is something that the series does often explicitly note, even if it's not addressed in this specific example. Plus, Buffy's case is one of the 'she can't help it' examples, so while it is invasive, getting on her case about reading their thoughts isn't something that's really going to help given that she can't not read their thoughts, even before it starts to overwhelm her. While, say, Xander is at that point aware that Buffy can read people's thoughts, so could probably make more of an effort to not think things that would embarrass him.
        • Actually, Buffy would more fall into the other category. Yes, she can't help the fact that she can read people's minds. At the same time, though, she was using the ability to cheat in class and tells what her friends are thinking out loud. She also purposely tried to use it to invade her boyfriend's privacy, but only failed because vampires' thoughts can't be read. As for Xander, he was trying as hard as he could to reign in his thoughts, but he's also a teenager. Teenagers tend to think about sex a lot. Also, if you tell someone not to think about X, then chances are that they're going to be thinking about X twice as hard without meaning to. It's basic psychology.
    • This discussion inspired this troper to write a story where all of this is addressed. See here.
    • This is addressed in a very disturbing way in Tales of MU by taking the opposite perspective. One of the minor characters is a natural telepath of the "can't help hearing people's thoughts" variety. We get a backstory chapter on her at one point, where when her teachers discovered her abilties, they talked to her parents, recommending that she get training to learn to control her abilities so as to not be constantly violating the privacy of everyone around her. But these are not ordinary, reasonable parents; they're basically hippie parents, and their response can be summed up fairly well as "How dare you suggest that there's anything wrong with our daughter that she needs to learn to control, you horrible evil authority figures! Our daughter's abilities make her special, and if other people have a problem with it, that's their own fault!" Between the way it's written and the author's statements in comments, it's clear that the parents are supposed to be 100% in the right in this case. This being Tales of MU, of course, Does This Remind You of Anything? is intentionally in full force. It was quite off-putting to a lot of readers who actually understood the implications of it.
    • The StarCraft example alluded to above actually plays with this a bit -- sure, Kerrigan has her moment of outrage that Jimmy's fantasizing about her, but she did get to see it, and Ghost powers can be difficult or impossible to control. But given that they get over it pretty quickly (both their next lines are quips about the situation), it seems that either they're both just Consummate Professionals or it wasn't actually a big deal for either of them, just a knee-jerk reaction.