Monday, 2 April 2012

The other Turing test

From time to time, I like to check the galloping pulse of the religious right by examining the latest furious rant blogged by my favourite wackaloon, Steve Kellmeyer. Here he is, in fine form, on one of the skeletons that recently fell, clattering, from the Catholic Church's formerly padlocked cupboard:


It seems some Dutch Catholic priests were caught having sex with young men back in the 1950s. The priests were disciplined and ten of the young men - assumed homosexuals - were castrated.

Obviously, Steve points out, the real victims here weren't a few powerless teenage kids, forcibly mutilated by their abusers, but those poor, persecuted, misunderstood servants of the church, who couldn't even rape and castrate a few kids, then lie about it and cover it up for decades, without some darn bleeding-heart liberal kicking up a fuss:

But, when it comes to this story, multi-cultural liberals disregard the fact that homosexuality was a crime in the 1950s, the fact that the culture was entirely different, that punishment and treatment were viewed in different light - none of this has bearing.

There is only one thing to focus on - men were castrated and a priest was behind it.
That is sufficient.

Call the court of public opinion!

Chant your confession of faith in liberal values! 

There speaks a man with a (very small) point, but absolutely no sense of empathy, shame or proportion. He is, of course, right to point out that in the 1950's, objective homophobia and discrimination wasn't by any means the exclusive prerogative of a few sex-obsessed God-botherers on the religious right, but was firmly embedded in nation states, their laws and in the mindset of large sections of society.

It's also true that ideas and practises that modern liberals would find horrific, once had traction among progressive thinkers. Ideas like eugenics and the forced sterilisation of the "unfit" were, before the Nazis gave them a bad name, mainstream, not just in countries like the USA, but in such beacons of liberalism as Sweden. Progressives like George Bernard Shaw, Marie Stopes and H. G. Wells were enthusiastic champions of eugenics.

One of the most celebrated victims of state-sponsored homophobia was Alan Turing, the immensely gifted mathematician, Bletchley Park code breaker, computer pioneer and all-round good egg.

In 1952, Turing was arrested and tried for homosexuality, then a criminal offence. To avoid prison, he accepted injections of oestrogen for a year, which were intended to neutralise his libido.

Turing died on 8 June 1954. The coroner concluded that he'd committed suicide. Only he knew exactly what happened, but it would surprise nobody if this brutal, pointless persecution was the final straw that drove him to end his life.

What about the state-approved chemical castration of a blameless citizen who, by any reasonable standards, should have been a national hero (had his vital wartime work not been way too secret to share with the nation)? Does that let the Catholic Church off the hook? I don't think so.

First, the appeal to hypocrisy ( tu quoque) isn't a very impressive defence. If you've raped and mutilated children, saying "sorry" would be inadequate, but at least it would be a start. Retorting that everybody did that sort of thing and you're just being unfairly picked on is, quite simply, pathetic, especially coming from an apologist for an organisation that's supposed to be the epitome of dignity and moral authority.

Second, yes, the officials who tormented Turing and committed many more systematic acts of cruelty against countless other, less celebrated, humans whose only crime was to be slightly different from the majority, just got on with their lives, generally retired quietly and were never called to account. But, crucially, other people were outraged enough, brave enough and persistent enough to decide that enough was enough and to work to put a stop to such pointless, unconsidered discrimination and cruelty. As a result, although bigotry still exists, we live in a far more tolerant, inclusive society at least when it comes to people's sexuality (not to mention race, gender, disability and so on).

The secular world may not have called the petty, intolerant, thoughtless tyrants of yesteryear to account, but it's done something else just as important. It's worked though the arguments, questioned dogmas, debated the issues. It has - unlike the religious right - changed, rather than just paying lip service to change and repentance. It's adapted, listened, evolved, become (at least in this respect) more humane, more understanding, less casually cruel. It's not perfect, but it's a start. The secular world has made progress since the 1950's. So, to be fair, have some religious folk.

But not the dogmatists of the palaeo-conservative right, who see nothing wrong with authoritarianism and the wanton persecution of anybody who dares to be different. Because they know it all already. They don't need to change. They don't need to listen (except to the voice in their own heads that they've identified as the creator of the universe and the fount of all wisdom). When it comes to humility and repentance, they talk a good game, but the reality is that when they're found wanting, their response is denial, cover-up and counter-accusation, rather than changing and becoming more humane.

Alan Turing is known, among many other things for the test that bears his name. To recap:

The Turing test is a test of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour. In Turing's original illustrative example, a human judge engages in a natural language conversation with a human and a machine designed to generate performance indistinguishable from that of a human being. All participants are separated from one another. If the judge cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test. 

Given Turing's tragic encounter with intolerance, I'd like to propose another test in the great man's honour.

The "other Turing test" is actually a series of diagnostic tests to determine whether any self-appointed member of the morality police has the right to impose his or her values on other human beings:
  1. Could you persuade a reasonable, disinterested bystander, that the "immorality" you're objecting to is causing real harm? If not, then you've failed to demonstrate any compelling reason why other people should change their way of living to suit your preferences.
  2. If 1. (above) applies and saving somebody else from "immorality" is demonstrably causing unhappiness, how, exactly, is this supposed to help anybody in any way?
  3. Is the moral code you're trying to enforce is indistinguishable from your own personal social preferences? If so, you need to knuckle down to the hard work of proving its value by argument and persuasion, rather than feeling entitled to everybody else's respectful deference to your notion of morality and pouting like a spoilt child when you don't get it.
  4. If 1. and 2. (above) apply, but you have managed to get your way by using moral blackmail, or legal or physical force to enforce your notion of "morality", please expain clearly, in language we can all understand, how your "moral authority" differs from plain, old-fashioned bullying.

That'll fall on deaf ear among the holier-than-thou brigade themselves, but those are worthwhile questions for the victims of such unsolicited moral guidance to ask.

Interestingly, Kellmeyer cites gender reassignment surgery as an example of 'politically acceptable castration', ignoring the obvious difference that, in civilised countries, this an elective procedure, undertaken only at the request of the patient. The prospect of such a procedure may fill Kellmeyer with loathing and he's not alone - to be honest, just thinking about it makes me feel squeamish. But the fact that the majority of people can't imagine wanting anybody to do such a thing to them is irrelevant. What matters is how those consenting adults seeking out gender reassignment feel about it. I don't have to share their feelings to respect their right to choose.

And it's the right to choose that really seems to rile the authoritarian religious right. While the Kellmeyers of this world condemn voluntary sex-change procedures, religious conservatives elsewhere have embraced sex-change surgery as a way of "curing" homosexuality. In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa asserting that sex reassignment surgery was permissible for "diagnosed transsexuals". As filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian has documented, the practical effect of the fatwa is that the Iranian religious authorities can pressurise gay people to diagnose themselves as transsexual and submit to coercive sex-change surgery. In a country where homosexual relationships are punishable by death, it's a way for clerics to deny the existence of homosexuality. 'Homosexuality is a disease of corrupt, degenerate countries. We don't have any people like that here (we had them all killed or castrated)'.

It's not the surgery that palaeo-conservatives object to, it's the idea of people choosing for themselves, rather than submitting to the arbitrary dictates of militant theism. There's a telling comment in one review of Eshaghian's film Be Like Others; 'Islamic Iran and the Christian Right have so much in common —it’s just surprising that they’re not better friends.'

The important thing to remember about nuts like Kellmeyer is that they're mad, not stupid. Their core beliefs may be screwed up and delusional, but there is tactical method in their madness. As I've blogged before, Christianity and Islam have gained far more adherents than any other belief systems by a considerable margin. I don't think it's any coincidence that, at different times in their respective histories, both have gone through expansionist phases of aggressive proselytising, seeking to exterminate rival faiths and seize as much coercive temporal power as possible.

In contrast a less coercive, more moderate faith like Sikhism, (founded on the principle that all humans are equal, no matter what their particular creed, gender or caste), has gained only 23 million followers (as opposed to Christianity's 2.1 billion and Islam's 1.5 billion ).

I'm guessing that Kellmeyer's smart enough to have noticed the declining congregations in the newly liberal, inclusive mainstream churches in Europe and the USA and the recent relative success of radical, intolerant Islam in gaining adherents and intimidating critics. For all the humbug about humility and submission, he's grasped the essential truth that, if you want your audience to believe six impossible things before breakfast, you need to carry a big stick to silence anybody who might be tempted to ask awkward questions and heckle from the back.

Which is why the religious right are casting envious eyes on radical Islamists (not to mention the flourishing, illiberal, witch-finding, gay-bashing churches of the developing world) and wistfully remembering the good old days of the Inquisition when their beliefs, however absurd, got automatic respect from anybody with an understandable distaste for extreme pain and being burned to death.