I beg your pardon – Alan Turing and forgiveness

A year or so ago, it was announced that Alan Turing, codebreaker and computer pioneer, was to receive a royal pardon for his 1952 conviction for gross indecency (specifically being in a homosexual relationship).  Although this was the result of a long campaign, by this time it met with little objection.  Turing has been widely acknowledged as a hero of the Second World War (although I think the pendulum has swung to the point where both his individual contribution, and that of Bletchley Park in general, have become somewhat exaggerated.  But that is a matter for another day), and the activity for which he was condemned has now been legal in the UK for some decades.  So far, so uncontroversial.

No doubt some of those who objected did so because they viewed his sexuality and his relationship, while now legal in the UK, as wrong or sinful.  These people are uninteresting, caught as they are on the wrong side of history.  However, there was another source of complaint: that in singling out Turing, the state was saying either that: a) it’s ok to commit crimes if you’re a hero; or b) you only deserve (posthumous) justice if you’re famous.  The former is an interesting matter – we do already allow all sorts of exemptions from normal rules for people acting in exceptional circumstances (such as the emergency services being able to ignore speed limits in the course of their duty, or those under immediate personal threat) – and could be examined from a utilitarian perspective.  The latter, however, is what has lead to the situation that I read about today.

For a few people, the reaction to reading about the pardoning of one prominent homosexual man was to ask ‘what about the rest?’  The first I read was Ally Fogg’s piece in the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/24/alan-turing-pardon-wrong-gay-men .  He objected to the fact that Turing was being singled out for this privilege on the grounds of his (justified) fame, and argued that the pardon should be extended to all those convicted of similar crimes.  He noted that they already had the right to have their criminal records removed, since their actions would no longer be considered a crime.  Thus it would seem to be a relative formality and, as he observed, a potentially neat piece of political marketing, to extend the Turing pardon to all those, living and dead, unjustly prosecuted for their sexuality.

A year on, this new campaign has grown and is making its presence felt on social media, led by Benedict Cumberbatch off his playing Turing in The Imitation Game.  It is on this that I want to comment.

My two cents

Firstly, I want to clarify that I regard Alan Turing as a great person (I’m a little uncomfortable with the word ‘hero’), entirely deserving of recognition for his work, and I am sure that Ally Fogg and other associated with the current campaign concur.  If we are to celebrate those who worked against the Nazis and their allies, it is fitting that we go beyond those in a purely military capacity.  Secondly, I regard persecution on the basis of sexuality as a grave error, whether by individuals or the state.  As a pansexual (which is to say approximately bisexual+ for people who recognise that sex and gender are not binary), I am acutely aware that I am privileged to live when I do, when at least I can know that I won’t be pursued by my government for this.  If we could replay history, it would be good to think that we would have behaved differently, exporting 21st century attitudes to an earlier age.  But the editing of history is one of the matters that interests me here.

My first question is what exactly this pardon (either for Turing individually, or for the many thousands of others) entails.  Now I am not a legal expert, so I am going to work on the basis of Wikipedia and some googling (if I were writing a paper, I would certainly do more, but this should suffice for some general musings).  Broadly, a pardon seems to work in one of two fashions, one simpler than the other.  The first, which is certainly the case in the US and some other jurisdictions, is that it consists in forgiveness for an admitted crime, including cancellation of the associated penalty.  The second is vaguer and, crucially, makes no mention of the admission of guilt.

In the first case, we take it that Turing admitted committing the offences with which he was charged – as he did at – the time.  He did what he did, knowing it was illegal, and does not deny breaking the law.  The state, on behalf of the nation, then decides to forgive and cancels the associated penalty (with some difficulty, one thinks, given that the sentence has been carried out and the subject has been dead for some years).  The problem with this is that the crime remains just that, and historically Turing is still a criminal, albeit one who has been ‘forgiven’ for his crime.  This is highlighted by looking at possibly the most prominent such pardon in recent history, that of Richard Nixon by Gerald Ford.  In that case, it is generally accepted that Nixon was involved to some extent in both criminal and ethically wrong activity, but he got a pass for some reason (either because Ford was his friend, or because it was in the ‘best interests of the country’, as Ford himself put it).  You can see the similarity if we focus on the Turing pardon alone: he committed a crime, but for various contingent reasons, the state has decided to make an exception to the usual rules.  If the general pardon for crimes relating to homosexuality is granted, it becomes somewhat more complex, but the general situation seems is the same.

In the second case, we don’t begin with the assumption of guilt at all.  Again, Turing plead guilty at the time, but was apparently persuaded to do so on the basis of expediency.  This opens up a whole other can of worms regarding a legal system that encourages people to plead in hope of a lighter sentence: one may believe oneself entirely innocent, but still officially admit a crime to reduce the sentence.  At the very least it should undermine the position of anybody who believes that criminal verdicts necessarily represent the ‘truth’ of the matter.  Justice is not supposed to be about bargaining, it is supposed to be about determining what *actually* happened, before acting upon it.  Regardless, it makes the matter of what the pardon entails considerably murkier.

It would appear that either: we assume that something similar to the US process occurs: Turing and the others did commit a crime, but we have belatedly decided to forgive them; or we are now going to pretend that we can apply modern standards to historical cases, effectively pretending that the whole sorry business never happened because it wouldn’t have been a crime at all in 21st century Britain.  The dilemma is whether to forgive or forget, both of which are more complicated than they may first appear.

Forgiveness looks bad because it takes it that we do still accept that what Turing et al did was wrong, but we have decided that they are worthy of our special treatment.  It is a bit ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’  And this is clearly unsatisfactory for anyone who doesn’t take the previously alluded to position that Turing only deserves his pardon because of his heroism.  Basically, you can’t forgive somebody without continuing to believe that they were wrong.  The fact that you forgive them doesn’t just fail to change this, in a fashion it actually preserves it.

Forgetting is equally tricky, not least because it pretends that we can act upon the past.  It also, by emphasising that this is not about a special exception to a rule, opens up the question of how widely this can be applied.  Now I’m certainly not going to oppose the pardon on a vague ‘thin end of the wedge’ argument, but it does raise the question of whether we should consider pardoning persons convicted of other activities we now no longer regard as crimes.  Women were also the victims of laws we now regard with something between horror and disbelief, so should we pardon those convicted of witchcraft?  For those unaware, there is a long-running campaign for a pardon of the last woman convicted Helen Duncan, sentenced to 9 months in 1944.  From a 21st century position, this also is absurd and should not have happened.  But it did, and nothing we can do can make it otherwise.

And this gets me to the broader matter of state wrongs.  Turing’s prosecution was not isolated.  Nor were those of the thousand of others tried and convicted of similar crimes.  The British state and its justice system have done a lot wrong in the past (as I am sure they do in the present, and will continue to do so, but these are matters that can be addressed more directly (the same are true of every state in history, but let’s keep the focus as tight as is reasonably possible).   As much as national continuity is plausible, the current form bears responsibility for the past.  I realise that this raises flags both in terms of sons bearing the sins of their fathers, and collective blame for individual wrongs, but I am talking about the state, which is not merely a collection of its constituent citizens or subjects, and which continues to exist – in the manner of Theseus’s ship – even as its people are born, live, and die.  Notwithstanding the changes of administration, the state that exists today is the same one that prosecuted Alan Turing and all those others, and it is this state that needs to atone for its wrongs.  Individual British people can then decide how personally it involves them, with the caveat that if you want to enjoy the glory of past military victories (as the current government seems to be doing with WW1), then you also accept that you are associating with a state that jailed people for their private activities.

Forgiveness or apology

Ok, so here’s what I think we should do: pretending that the prosecution of Turing, the thousands of other homosexual men, and the countless others convicted of crimes that are no longer crimes did not occur seems somewhat farcical.  A pardon, framed as it is in terms of forgiveness and clemency, also seems wrong given that it assumes both factual guilt, and the authority of the forgiver to do so.  Rather, the British state should be offering a public and unconditional apology to those it has wronged in the past.  It is the nation that wants forgiveness for its errors, and the gift of this should rest with those it has wronged (or their descendants as representatives).  We could then start thinking about all the others due an apology.


Obviously, it goes without saying that I agree that anybody still living with a recorded conviction for crimes similar to Alan Turing should have it withdrawn.  And I broadly applaud the campaigns spoken about; I entirely agree with their intentions, if not quite their precise goals.


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