Tis’ the season of pardons

This year Alan Turing got a posthumous royal pardon for his conviction of homosexuality. Justice Minister Chris Grayling said: “Turing deserves to be remembered and recognised for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science. A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.” Last year I blogged here on why asking for a pardon of Alan Turing might be a mistake. I still stand by my criticism: the fact that Turing was exceptional doesn’t mean he was above the (unjust) law or that he is more morally deserving than any other victim of that law.

Meanwhile in Russia, an amnesty has been called for 20,000 prisoners. This includes plenty of political prisoners, most notably members of Pussy Riot and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The official reason for this seems to be the 20th anniversary of the adoption of Russian constitution, but in practice it might of course be a festive way of defusing some criticisms before the winter Olympics. Should the freed dissidents and their supporters now feel grateful to Putin?

If one is recipient of clemency one can be happy for it, but whether one has an obligation to feel or act grateful is different. Emotions cannot be morally compelled. Some people seem incapable of gratefulness. Trying to impose gratefulness, compassion or solidarity on somebody might actually prevent the genuine emotion – the beggar who obviously has made himself pitiful in order to affect our emotions might indeed evoke a desired pang of compassion, but it is a compassion mixed with recognition of the manipulation. Most of us are somewhat deontological about evoking emotions: the true intentions do matter for whether the target should feel the desired emotion. If, as most critics suspect, Putin showed clemency for political reasons rather than (say) holiday spirit then there is no moral obligation for them to feel grateful. Maria Baronova said: “But I will not thank him for this blatant attempt to clean up his image. It is a propaganda ploy, not an act of goodwill.”

One can still be polite, of course. As Pavel Ivlev said: “I would have thanked him, … Of course he is still an awful scumbag for doing all of this in the first place. But in this specific instance, for this specific act, Putin deserves some thanks.” Gratitude can be restrained and focused on the act itself, rather than the intentions behind it.

In the Turing case there is a general, society-wide understanding that the law he and others was condemned under was unfair and that some restitution or reintegration might be in order so that our current society can acknowledge its dark past. Had there not been that kind of understanding it would just have been a case of giving one individual special privileges (it is still teetering rather close to it). But one can interpret the pardon charitably and say it does represent an attempt to embrace oppressed sexual minorities – perhaps political to some extent, perhaps not felt by everyone, but still a form of group/institutional apology. Turing might not be able to feel grateful for it, but there might be reason for the rest of us (gay or not) to feel a bit grateful.

There is still the consequentialist angle. A pardon for Turing has limited consequences despite sending a clear signal since it will mostly affect an already fairly tolerant society; Richard Branson’s call for a business boycott of Uganda might be felt there much more strongly.

Gratitude is a way of repaying kindness, a recognition of reciprocity that might re-establish a link between two parties. But that seems to suggest that while gratitude in the Turing case is appropriate (we want to have an inclusive society) it might be inappropriate in the Russia case since the Russian amnesty is unlikely to represent a softening of stance from the authorities, nor greater tolerance of dissidents in society at large. There is less reciprocity in this situation, only power.

Next question: how long before a petition for pardoning Oscar Wilde?

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3 Responses to Tis’ the season of pardons

  • Calum Chace says:

    You’re right, Anders: the pardon was not the best possible move. Apart from anything else, it leaves the stain of the alleged “guilt”. A better move would have been to apologise for having had the awful law in the first place, which would have enabled the apologist to apologise to all its victims at the same time, including Oscar Wilde and all the non-celebrities who were punished.

    The Queen (and the bureaucracy that lies behind her) probably does not have the authority to issue such an apology, as it presumably requires the legislature to go further than the repeal of the law which took place years ago. But they should start that process now.

  • Nikolas Schaffer says:

    Turing: It’s a bit late in the day to be trying to kiss him better. Especially as the critter doing the kissing is a pampered parasite whose only role is to embody the spirit of conservative, anti-Enlightenment authority, the very authority that murdered the chap in the first place. Should we be glad that the powers of unreason are reluctantly admitting homosexuals to the spectrum of those they deign to let live? Or should we be hanging the Royals and the archbishops and the mullahs and all the other nasties from the lampposts? A daft question, they know they can rely on our suicidal tolerance.

    Putin: He’s having a laugh. The day the Russian state embraces basic human rights is so far distant as to be very unconvincing sci-fi.

  • Martin Cooke says:

    I agree; I fail to see what Turing’s pardon means: The laws against homosexuality were changed because we came to believe that homosexuality is not wrong, so we have in that sense implicitly pardoned everyone convicted under those laws. Most of us do not believe that people were wrong to put love or even lust above such laws; and those that do, do they now think that Turing alone was not wrong, for some reason? It seems irrational, like the West and Putin are vying for the sympathies of computer geeks, ahead of some rationally anticipated cyberwars or something!