Making Tea for Alan Turing

Today is the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing.  Below is my 2009  post which was prompted by an apology by the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown.  

The 1885 law under which he was prosecuted was one of the most sickening and intrusive ever enacted by parliament.  A shameful part of English legal history.

PLEASE SIGN THE PETITION TO HAVE TURING PUT ON THE NEXT TEN POUND NOTE.

 

 

One of the most brilliant people I have ever met said that – had she been required to do war work – she would have happily spent it making tea for Alan Turing.

 

Turing was born in 1912, and so he could well have lived into our own times (he was born the day before Brian Johnston, the cricket commentator).

He could even be alive today, celebrated as a national treasure for his incredible contributions to the war effort, to mathematics, and to computer science.

However, Turing died in 1954. The circumstances pointed to suicide (though some disputed this). He was found dead with a part-eaten apple, laced it seems with cyanide. The choice of an apple may be significant, as it has been claimed that his favourite fairy-tale was Snow White.

Alan Turing’s death in turn has become significant.

In essence: he died because he was a homosexual; he died because of the vile laws against male homosexuality which were then in force; and he died because of the misconceived “treatment” which was then deemed appropriate (by some scientists and medical doctors, sadly) for the “illness” of homosexuality.

 

In 1952 Turing reported a burglary. In the investigation and case which followed the police became aware that Alan Turing had homosexual relationships.

Technically, homosexuality was not a crime – at least not directly.

Buggery was a crime, under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (which is still actually in force for Grievous Bodily Harm, Actual Bodily Harm and – oddly – Bigamy, which the law also regards as an offence against the person). But few men were actually tried for or convicted of the crime of buggery.

 

And “gross indecency” was a crime.

Turing was prosecuted under the notorious section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. This was the same offence under which Oscar Wilde was tried.

Under section 11, an offence of “gross indecency” could be committed by two male persons, either in public or in private. This was taken to mean by the police and the courts to mean all consensual intimate sexual behaviour between men.

Section 11 was not a deeply considered piece of legislation; indeed its enactment was almost an accident. In one late parliamentary sitting, a (so-called radical) MP proposed an amendment which was accepted almost on the nod by the frontbench. There was no debate, either in parliament or otherwise.

Nonetheless, section 11 would criminalise all meaningful male homosexual intimacy for eighty years. Rather than the remote threat of a prosecution under the buggery offence, any evidence or admission of physical closeness – even in private – would lead to prosecution, a sentence, and a criminal record. It was regarded as the “blackmailer’s charter”.

 

Alan Turing was charged; he admitted his guilt and was convicted. Instead of imprisonment, he was able to opt for “treatment”. He was given hormones to suppress his libido; the side effects were breast development and depression.

In effect, Alan Turing was chemically castrated.

 

Alan Turing was a hero and a genius, but this “treatment” was also inflicted on many other gay men prosecuted under this legislation. Turing’s awesome achievements do not by themselves warrant him receiving an apology for this shameful official conduct; there should be an apology for every gay man who was prosecuted.

All of them deserved better.

 

It was good that the person who wrote Gordon Brown’s apology noted this, though only in passing:

“While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was convicted, under homophobic laws, were treated terribly. Over the years, millions more lived in fear in conviction.”

[Emphasis added – and note how “Turing” becomes “Alan” in two sentences!]

 

Of course, a posthumous apology or pardon is always a mere gesture.

Nonetheless, the greatness of Turing – and the undeniable sheer importance of his work in the war and in computers and the appalling injustice done to him – must force anyone to reconsider using the law to criminalise homosexuality, or to regard homosexuality as to be treated as an illness.

Such people still exist.

 

The Prime Minister’s apology – an official acknowledgement of official wrongdoing – makes it just that more difficult for such bigots to prevail again.

The apology also reminds us just how recent “modern” times are.

 

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7 thoughts on “Making Tea for Alan Turing”

  1. It is a very great sadness that such a brilliant man who did such a lot to end the second World War was treated in such a way. It makes my heart sink every time I read about it- putting him on the ten pound note- along with other heroes and notables would be a small measure of apology and the least we as a nation could do to honour his name and his achievements.

  2. Two members of my family worked at Bletchley during World War 2. Alan Turing was remembered with great affection for his eccentricities, his habit of walking sideways or his tea mug being tied to the radiator. But he was mothered by all the women who worked there, because they could see his genius. It is such a great pity that Alan is not alive today, because there was so much he had to give us. He really was a modern polymath. A 20th Century Leonardo Da Vinci. We should celebrate his achievements, because we use them everyday now. We should remember that just because someone is different, does not mean that they are abnormal. They have the same rights as the rest of us and deserve the same courtesy and respect as the rest of us.

  3. The greatest testimony that we can give to Turing’s genius is to recognise that it is still unfolding ahead of us. He remains a man of the present tense. How many others can we say that of?
    Historical achievements are certainly worth recognising, but Turing was more than this. We don’t need to reify him with symbols and gestures, because he is still speaking. We should still be learning.

    Just the other week I stumbled across a new paper: “Powers of the Facsimile – A Turing Test on Science and Literature.”(Latour) taking as it’s premise Turing’s own words: “Mechanism and writing from our point of view are almost synonymous.”

    This is the unfolding, and still largely neglected side of Turing that breathes as his legacy. 

    He was a man of incredible breadth and complexity, his writing implies (in fact explicitly states) a passionate relationship with mathematics and with technology that dwarfs the scope of so many of today’s ‘enlightened ‘ thinkers.  There is still so much to know about him. I would rather we emphasise this than to saturate him with gestures pertaining to history.

    Apologies and atonements are meaningful only insofar as they are received by the person to which they are addressed, and who would presume to receive an apology on behalf of this man? Who would presume to make it?

    We should rejoice by virtue of what we can still learn from him. 

    Again, these are Turing’s own words, incredible words and a little more than surprising: “In attempting to construct such machines we should not be irreverently usurping God’s power of creating souls, anymore than we are in the procreation of children: rather we are, in either case, instruments of His will providing mansions for the souls He creates.” (Mind 59, 1950).

    Irrespective of how one understands such terms as Turing uses here (and they are frequent), the sheer weight of feeling and rigour of philosophy that he brought to the field of technology is still pregnant (excuse the pun) with potential. It is still ‘in process’. There are Modes of Thought (Whitehead) that Turing exploits and expresses that today we can barely grasp, so impoverished have we become.

    Speaking for myself, I would feel almost ashamed to hear some mumbled atonement or see some printed gesture given on Turing’s behalf. He remains years ahead of us, possibly smiling at our ineptitude!

    We should just read him. He should be in our schools.

  4. This horrible law was responsible for the ability of the Russians to blackmail several highly placed British civil servants into spying for them

  5. What a pity David, you seem to have deleted my comment once again.?

    And yet I was alone in paying Turing the greatest respect by quoting his own words. You have written at great length both about the man, and on his behalf, and yet at no point does it seem to have crossed your mind to allow Turing to speak for himself.

    These shows of atonement therefore ring still more hollow. 

    For how many years has this nation lamented it’s role in the slave trade? Dutifully puffing up our self-righteousness with blue plaques, somber faces and remembrance of the abolitionists? Whilst all the time we have gleefully administered capitalist policies that have seen the very poorest people of the world driven from their homes into urban cesspits of begging and sweatshop. Slavery in all but name.

    I can only speak for myself, but these public shows now ring only of hypocrisy, self-righteousness and stupidity. My opinion, no more.

    And so Turing, one of the greatest minds we have ever seen, a man you might realise, that I have immense passion for, is still left mute, and ill considered.

    If I might try the cut once again, because Turing is worth hearing, here for what it is worth are two of the most startling and pregnant remarks that he made (or so I believe):

    “In attempting to construct such machines….we are instruments of His will providing mansions for the souls He creates.”

    “Mechanism and writing are almost entirely synonymous.”

    Turing is worth the effort.

  6. The bigotry has not receded significantly just changed appearance.
    Now it wears religious regalia openly, one might even suggest proudly.

    Although it is true that some politicians have mellowed somewhat the same cannot really be said for those that languish in the Lords chamber.
    And many are directly influenced, some might say swayed, by petty vindictive, subjective and sensationalist rhetoric by their peers on those benches.
    All orchestrated by the theological mafia whispering archly about the damage and destruction wreaked by two people who wish to commit to one and other and receive true equality under the law.

    Some boast of rendering aid and the support of their church for love to enjoy a civil partnership..none seem keen on allowing the M word to enter the debate…equality on their terms…is not exactly equality as the term defines.

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