Friday, October 21, 2016

Pardon me not

Alan Turing
Somebody sent me a link to a news item the other day about the decision by the powers that be in Britain to “pardon” all the gay men (I think the law only applies to men) who were arrested in the past for crimes like “buggery, gross indecency and loitering with intent.”

My first response was anger.

Who the hell are you to presume the right to "pardon" me, said the voice in my head. You want to "pardon" me for committing a crime? It's on your head, you blinkin’ twit, that what I did was a crime in the first place!"

It’s me who should pardon you for being such a retrograde bigot. Like you, we all did things in the past we are ashamed of today.  I'm happy to see you are no longer hung up on the sex lives of others, and sure, it's good to let bygones be bygones.

But pardon me?  Come off it!

I then read the article about the new Turing Law, as it's being called (a wonderful way, at least, to honor Alan Turing) and was not surprised to find I'm not alone in this reaction.  The article mentions a 93-year-old gay activist from Brighton named George Montague who was among those swept up in the legal prissiness of the day.  He refuses to accept a pardon.

The problem is by now a familiar one.  It is the gap between legal terminology and words as we use them in daily life.  If in passing the Turing Law they had announced only that they were going to “correct the injustice” or “put right the damage done to gays,” there would, I think, have been a huge sigh of relief.  Some “it’s about damn time!” responses, but a much more general welcoming of the change in attitudes in Britain toward LGBT people.   It's the use of the word "pardon" that gets under your skin.

The legal term “to pardon” is the word used to mean “remove charges,” so, properly framed, this is a story of the justice system righting itself. Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon for illegal wiretapping.  I wouldn't have, but the "dignity of the White House" was never a priority for me. Nixon had clearly done wrong. 

Unfortunately, in daily parlance, one “pardons” a person for doing an actual wrong. These men, consenting adults who sought each other out for sex, did no wrong.  There’s nothing to pardon.

Well, let me back up here.  Turns out this is a sticky business because the charge of “lewd behavior” covered a multitude of sins, and folks of a conservative bent are pointing out, with good reason, that a blanket “pardon” might include those who did harm to others – who took advantage of the vulnerable and forced them into sex against their will.

There’s the rub.  When you use a trumped up excuse to go after someone, it can come back at you.  Go into a private space, like a gay bar, grab somebody dancing with somebody of the same sex, and throw them in jail for “lewd behavior,” and you lose the moral high ground you need when you then want to go for a sexual aggressor on the same charge.

This issue bugged the hell out of me recently when Donald Trump began hitting back at Hillary Clinton because, as he put it, her husband “did far worse.”  Forget the by now familiar habit Trump has of responding to things like a five-year-old.  His mode of interacting with the world is usually, “Johnny hit me first!” What got lost was the distinction between sex and violence. Between consent and aggression.

The prissiness of the Victorian age is still with us.  Hillary was married to a horn-dog.  Bill Clinton pulled a stupid that will go down through the ages.  He had an intern in the Oval Office on the floor on her knees giving him a blow job.  Couldn’t get tackier if you tried.

Now correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn't Monica Lewinsky a consenting adult?  There never was any evidence that she was forced into a sex act.  What she did was inappropriate, and that’s an understatement.  But there was never any way to put it down as an act of violence.  The issue in Trump’s case was – or should have been – sexual aggression, sex with people against their will.  That is, and should remain, a crime.  (And yes, it's entirely possible that Trump is telling the truth for a change and the "crooked Hillary" campaign got these ten women to lie under oath and claim Trump was sexually aggressive. That seedy issue has yet to be worked out.)

If we could just get past the church’s brilliantly sinister decision to get control of people by making morality center on sex, and recognize that the real ills of this world center on violence and deceit – and not sex between consenting adults – we could eliminate the need for folks at some future date to “pardon” people for doing what comes naturally.

We've been down this road before with the word tolerance.  Just as the good folk of the British legal system think they are doing good with pardon, most people think they are doing good when they preach tolerance.  But it’s the same inclination to place oneself in a superior position.

“What the world needs is more tolerance of others.”  Sounds good, right?  Until you put tolerance into context and you come up with things like, “I’ll tolerate you for being Jewish.”  Or “I’ll tolerate your after school work with handicapped kids, but I think you should be working full time on your MBA.”

I don’t need your tolerance, and I don’t need your pardon.

I need your recognition that we are equals, and that we have common problems to worry about.

Let’s get on with those.

photo credit

Added 4:15 p.m. - What escaped my notice until just now is the fact that Germany did the same thing the Brits are now doing, earlier this month.  But here the focus is on compensation, and not simply on giving the men a pardon.  They have set aside 30 million euros to compensate the 140,000 men convicted, 50,000 of those since the end of the Second World War.  About 5,000 men are expected to apply for compensation.  The notorious "Paragraph 175" that made gay sex illegal was abolished in West Germany in 1995.  East Germany abolished it as early as 1968.

Telling is the phrasing of the announcement.  According to the Minister of Justice, Heiko Maas, “We cannot completely undo these outrages of the rule of law, but we want to rehabilitate the victims.”

That's a damn sight better than "We will pardon you," I'd say.


Bill Sweigart said...

Bravo Alan! The distinctions you draw here are so very important to make. Like you, I would tell the British Government where to put their damn "pardon." I remember reading that over the years, 49,000 men in Britain were convicted under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, the so-called "Gross Indecency Law" repealed only in 2003. Turing, as we all know, tragically, committed suicide. We need to let Orwell guide us as we struggle for clarity with language. Turing doesn't need a pardon, and I sure as hell don't want to be tolerated by anybody.

Alan McCornick said...

As commonly happens, the closer you get to the nitty-gritty of the story, the more complexity you find. First off, there are Tories (at least one) opposed to the law, trying to shut it down. Then there are defenders (at least one), who are focused on recognition of just how bad the injustices were against gay men back in the day. See the two videos, for example, at: