Sunday, September 13, 2009

Alan Turing, Gordon Brown, and Collective Apologies

In a September 10 article, Britain's PM, Gordon Brown, apologized for the treatment that Alan Turing received in 1952, namely being convicted for "gross indecency" (codeword at the time for homosexual acts, then illegal in Britain), a conviction which led to Turing taking his own life two years later. Turing, for those unfamiliar, was the celebrated mathematician who contributed to breaking the codes produced by the Enigma machine invented by the Nazis. Indeed, as Brown said, the history of the Second World War could have been very different.

There is no doubt that the treatment of Turing by the British government was dreadful, unjust, and simply wrong on every count. However, what interests me is this: Gordon Brown didn't say that he's personally sorry. He didn't say that the British people of 1952 apologize. Brown used the word "we". We, meaning all British people, whether they were alive then or not, whether they were somehow connected to Turing's injustice or not.

What do such collective apologies mean?
It's clear that Brown spoke on behalf of the state (he says as much), but the state in this context is also the individuals subject to its rule. Brown apologized on behalf of people living today, despite them having no connection to the Turing affair. So in what way, exactly, is an 18 year old British boy, for example, responsible for these terrible deeds?

Conventional liberal thought conceptualizes the individual person as the center of its theory. I am a free person in charge of my fate. Being autonomous means having the freedom to choose the way I will lead my life, as long as I allow others a similar freedom to choose theirs. As Joseph Raz once wrote, being autonomous is having the freedom to be a (part) author of your life. From this notion of freedom we derive the concept of responsibility. Because I am free, I should be held responsible for the choices that I make. If I do a good deed, I am entitled to the results that follow. If I do wrong, if I infringed on another's rights, I should be held responsible, since it is I who chose to do the act. The same goes for an apology. I should apologize if I unjustifiably hurt another person. If another person committed the wrong, let him apologize for it. This is the meaning of moral responsibility. It seems, then, that if I did nothing wrong, I shouldn't have to apologize. Moreover, an apology on my behalf, when I did nothing wrong, is similarly meaningless. In fact, such an apology only ties me to an awful act of which I wish to have no part of. It seems, then, that classic (and admittedly simplified) liberal thought would preclude such an apology. However, I think that most of us believe that Brown's apology was actually appropriate and welcome. So why the difficulty? The conceptual difficulty lies, I think, with liberal thought itself. The concept of a collective apology indicates collective responsibility, and the latter doesn't sit well with classical liberalism. To understand Gordon Brown's apology, or, for that matter, other collective apologies, for example Japan's apology for its actions in WWII (apology given in 1985), we must acknowledge that by belonging to a certain community, a particular country, we tie our fate to it and to others. Of course, we all have our personal identity, which we assemble for ourselves, but sometimes the community, which we are a part of, shares and participates in the construction of that identity, whether we like it or not. Recognizing that symbiotic relationship means, sometimes, accepting responsibility for acts we did not commit, because on this view the notion of responsiblity simply cannot be limited to acts that can be traced solely to me. This more capacious sense of responsibility must also include acts done by others, even in the past, who relate to me in important ways. Of course, this position is problematic. What kind of responsiblity are we talking about? Merely issuing apologies? How about reparations? And am I responsible for everything my country has done in the past? How about the very distant past? All good questions to be sure, but, alas, they will have to be taken up in future posts.


  1. And why only apologize the treatment of Turing as many other gays were similarly wronged by our standards (and other suicides could probably be attributed to this kind of treatment)? Is this a privilege of heroes or will there be a constant repetition of apologies as we go along? And how about people subjected to capital punishment for property crimes (very unjust by my lights), or women indicted for adultery, or people who suffered hunger while governments wasted money on luxury. This is an endless road, really. Looking forward to your future posts on this.

  2. Thanks for this, Adam. I think you are onto something here. I have read a lot of commentary on the politics, optics and substance of state apologies but none have navigated the issue quite with your analytical precision.

    I have long been interested in this question, particularly since it came to the fore in Canada with respect to the current Prime Minister's recent apologies for the Chinese head tax, Japanese internment, and Indian Residential Schools.

    I wonder if perhaps I can help refine your thoughts by probing you with a few questions.

    1. Does it matter whether the citizens of the state have not all quite reached consensus on the need for an apology?

    2. How important is the identity of the one who apologizes on behalf of the state and its people?

    3. Is an apology sufficient or may financial or other forms of compensation be appropriate or perhaps even necessary to right prior wrongs?

    I ask these questions against the backdrop of an example -- and a related contrast -- I have in mind: the current president of the United States in comparison to either of his two immediate predecessors apologizing for the American slave trade.

  3. Very interesting post Adam. Just to add a question to those made by Toni and Richard. Does it really matter, in terms of your analysis on collective apologies, that the apology is for something done by a previous generation? Let's say that what the British state did to to Alan Turing occurred in 2008, not 1952, and the apology is issued in 2009. Would Gordon Brown be then more justified in apologizing on behalf of ALL the British people? Or, perhaps, less justified?

  4. Thanks guys. These are all good questions and I'll try for my response to do them justice. I don't think I have a worked out theory of these issues, more like an elaborate intuition.

    Joel - I think the temporal issue is important - it certainly plays into people's feeling of guilt and responsibility. Let's assume that Turing was indeed convicted in 2008 and that all the people alive then (in British society) are alive now. Conventional accounts of criminal law tell us that when the state prosecutes offenders, it does this in our name, hence, in the US at least, cases are titled "the people v. X". Given my stipulation, that in 2008 and 2009 we're talking about the same people, it would seem that there's more of a moral proximity which connotes responsibility. Of course, if one doens't buy into the idea of collective apologies at all, then the temporal issue might make little or no difference whatsoever.

    Toni - excellent point, one to which I don't really have a good answer. I'm not sure that we can come up with a bright line rule on which wrongs merit public apologies and which don't. I assume that the significance of the event, the harm done, the importance the public attaches to the wrong, will all go into this calculus, though surely these things will be conceptually fuzzy, and thus challenging!

    Richard - great questions. Again, my tentative answers are just that - tentative.

    1. Seeking complete consensus is impossible. There are probably very few issues, if any, that garner unanimity. However, I agree that some critical mass will probably be necessary to legitimize the apology, especially since it's on behalf of the people. It could be that simple democratic mechanisms such as majority vote will suffice. After all, if a majority can bind the minority on pretty much everything (notwithstanding supermajorities and constitutional amendments), then why can't it in this context?

    2. Again, not sure. I think that it should probably be someone who, at least, has the legal authority to speak on behalf of others, though that could mean different persons depending on the political regime.

    3. Apologies and/or reparations. That's definitely a hot issue. I think that ultimately these judgments are contextual and case specific, though I do see more problems, legally and practically, with reparations. Let's take your slavey example: who pays? All non African Americans? Only descendants of slaveowners? What about those who immigrated after the reconstruction amendments, should they pay as well? These are difficult issues indeed.

  5. Fantastic post and thread, Adam.

    I'm going to push you a bit to flush out a subtle, but i think important distinction, in your first post: when Brown said "we", did he really mean "all British people"? Or was he just speaking on behalf of the Government, the state bureacracy at the time? In other words, was this a collective apology, or is it an apology by the "state" on for past wrongs committed by the state?

    True, a Prime Minister as a top elected official can speak (and thus apologize) for "the People" that elected him, and, you seem to anticipate my objection with an Hobbesian view of the state: Brown apologized for actions of the "state", but really we can say that the state - like the Leviathan - is just a collective entity of all the people: "the individuals subject to its rule" (in your words).

    But why be Hobbesian? Today, everyone recognizes that state is separate from the People -- things politicians do, and regulations issued by state authorities that hurt or discriminate against people are not necessarily actions of the People. Often bad government policy was never formulated or implemented by the People, or even elected officials, but unelected civil servants.

    Liberal theory, I think, has less trouble with an apology by the state for wrongs done to people by the state, than apologizes on behalf of all people collectively. This is because the "state" and its bureaucracy is a more finite and definable entity than "all People"; and an apology by a PM -- today a member of the state government -- makes more sense, than apologizing for people who had no connection to earlier wrongs.

    As for Toni's point, I don't think the problem of the "slippery slope" is with apologies; but reparations. It's when you start compensating people for past collective wrongs that a state might find itself steering a course with limited public monies, no rudder, and no way back.

    I went looking for a famous quote of Trudeau only to realize when he said it, he was quoting John F. Kennedy:

    What can we do to redeem the past? I can only say as President Kennedy said... We will be just in our time. This is all we can do. We must be just today

  6. Jon - this is a great point, and I think that a lot my analysis does indeed turn on the issues you raised, namely, the severability of the state from the people subject to its rule.

    Technically, Brown didn't just apologize for the government, but for British people generally. He said "So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work, I am very proud to say: we're sorry." Presumably, all these free people are the people of Britain.

    But now to your important point. You're right, I think, in the sense that this might be an easier case. Turing was convicted by the state and its institutions. Yet, most acts for which public apologies are rendered are done by the state or a similar organ, for instance the Japanese army treatment of Chinese women and slavey in the US, which, though done by individuals, had ample state support and a constitutional backing as well.

    I agree that today, and contra Hobbes, we can draw a line between us and the state and say "that wasn't done by me", or "I did not consent to this", or "not in my name". And yet, these statements clearly belie a felt sentiment, i.e. that we make these explicit rejections because we feel a need to reject them. Otherwise, we WILL be associated with them.

    So even in these modern times Hobbes was definitely on to something. Despite the fact that the state is severable from its citizens on many levels, it's possible that when it comes to controversial issues the citizens don't want to be separate from the state.


Website Tracker