Thursday, 20 October 2016

Overwriting History

I posted some time ago about the fact that I was very doubtful of the value of prosecuting an extremely elderly woman who’d once, as a very young woman and for a short space of time, held a clerical position at Auschwitz.  I find myself thinking along similar lines now, but sort of in the opposite direction.  This is probably a bit controversial, so I shall attempt to tread carefully.

The UK Government has announced that it will officially pardon thousands of men who were convicted of homosexuality back in the days when it was against the law in this country.  Approximately 65,000 men were convicted under these laws, of whom 15,000 are still alive.

Since I’m very much in favour of equality on grounds of sexuality, and certainly don’t think that homosexuality should be illegal, I find myself in the slightly awkward mental position of nonetheless thinking that this isn’t a particularly good idea.  It smacks very much of not only wanting to judge the past by modern standards, but of wanting to reach back in time and correct its mistakes, even if only retroactively and in most cases posthumously.

I’m all for looking at the past and learning lessons from it, where possible.  We can examine with horror the idea that gay men were convicted simply of being gay, but I see no value whatsoever in retroactively pardoning thousands of men, most of whom are beyond caring in case.  At the times in which these crimes were committed, they were just that; crimes.  Should they have been crimes?  Nowadays we think not.  From the article: “Justice Minister Sam Gyimah said it was "hugely important that we pardon people convicted of historical sexual offences who would be innocent of any crime today".”  I think this is the crux.  If they were living today, they would, very rightly, be innocent of any crime.  However, they were not living today.

I am uncomfortable with what seems to me to be the arrogance (’chronological snobbery’ as Lewis called it) of riding roughshod over the values of other times.  We don’t have to agree with them (in many cases I would find it monstrous to do so), but to impose our values onto the past, I think, diminishes both the past and ourselves.

For hundreds of years, executions were legally conducted in this country.  I would see no value in posthumously finding all of our executioners guilty of murder, because we no longer consider the death penalty to be morally defensible.  I can understand that those people who are still alive and who were convicted of homosexuality have a stronger case, since those convictions could still conceivably affect their lives today, but even then it seems too much like rewriting the past to suit our own values.  Until comparatively recently, corporal punishment was considered perfectly acceptable in schools.  To my knowledge no-one is suggesting that we should round up all the old school teachers and try them for child abuse, and find all the dead ones guilty in absentia.  We now consider homophobia to be wrong, but to my knowledge this proposal does not suggest that we also try the original instigators of the anti-homosexuality laws for homophobic hate crimes.  To do so would be completely pointless.

In effect, what we’re saying with this is not simply ’We no longer think that these acts ought to be a crime’ but that ’These acts have now never been a crime, because we no longer think that they ought to have been in the first place.’

It also seems like apologising for the acts of other people.  I equally see little value in the great-great grandchildren of some colonial oppressor or other apologising to the great-great grandchildren of the people they oppressed for the things the one lot of ancestors did to the other.  You’re apologising to somebody for what somebody else did to somebody else again, and I’m not convinced of the value of it.  Perhaps if my ancestors had been tortured and persecuted I would, but it still seems to me to be a somewhat self-indulgent exercise in salving our consciences for a thing that we didn’t do in the first place.

I think that rewriting history to suit ourselves, to make ourselves feel better because we don’t happen to agree with decisions made decades before most of us were born, is a very slippery and dangerous slope.  Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, as the adage goes, and to me this merely serves to lessen the impact of the lessons that we ought to be learning.  To my modern sensibilities, it seems absurd and unjust that people should ever have been prosecuted simply for being homosexual, but the fact that they were helps sharpens my desire to ensure that we achieve true equality in the here and now, and help stamp out this injustice in those places in which it still exists today; a job which is very far from complete.  Changing the past in this way is, if anything, a needless distraction from that job.

1 comment:

  1. For the most part I agree with the sentiment. As someone who grew up with a different legal age of consent for one gender than another I can speak with some authority on the fact of being treated differently by the law based on gender attraction.
    Your premises however rely motet on the fact of pardoning just the dead. 15000 alive. People who have been living with a criminal record. People who's life were wrongly convicted. A crime that should not have been a crime.
    Tunings pardon helped the family grieve properly. For those that have died out offers this. A cleansing. For those alive it gives recognition. It costs little bit means a great deal.