Friday, 14 December 2012

When not to pardon

In the news today there's an item about a group of worthies (and they are genuinely worthy) trying to get the government to posthumously pardon the computing pioneer Alan Turing. Infamously, and in spite of his sterling war record, he was prosecuted for "gross indecency" in 1952 (basically, he was gay), and that this - possibly via the "medical" treatment he received for his "condition" - led to his suicide a few years later, when he was only 41. Anyway, this isn't the first time that a call has been made to have his conviction quashed, but it got me thinking about it again.

While his conviction is both outrageous and bizarre to me, and while I can understand the motivation to have this ridiculous mark against his name removed, I can also see that it - arguably - serves a purpose. Namely, by needlessly slurring the name of one of our brightest and best, it provides us with a helpful reminder of our nation's less than civilised past (and recent past at that). Our history, particularly that in close proximity to WW2, is frequently lauded as some sort of Golden Age, usually to service particular political ends. Details, such as this conviction, that reveal it to be little of the sort are a helpful corrective that lets us (and future generations) gauge history more accurately and less self-aggrandisingly.

Admittedly, there's a sense in which none of this actually matters. Turing is long dead, and no sensible person would view his conviction as anything other than homophobic folly. And revoking it would not likely expunge from the history books the fact that, regardless of his brilliance, he was persecuted to suicide by a bigoted state apparatus. But I'd still argue that, for us to correctly perceive history and our antecedents - both for good and for ill - we should be careful about retrospectively imposing the values of our age, however well-intentioned.

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