The Wronging Of Alan Turing: Sex, Shame, and the Complexity of a Human Being

Are you reading this on a computer? Then thank the guy on the left. The English mathematician Alan Turing, who would have turned 100 this June 23, is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of modern computer science. As Jack Copeland writes:

Turing conceived the principle of the modern computer. He described an abstract digital computing machine consisting of a limitless memory and a scanner that moves back and forth through the memory, symbol by symbol, reading what it finds and writing further symbols…The actions of the scanner are dictated by a program of instructions that is stored in the memory in the form of symbols. This is Turing’s stored-program concept, and implicit in it is the possibility of the machine operating on and modifying its own program.

Turing was also a pioneer in artificial intelligence: the “Turing Test, in which an artificial intelligence would be judged intelligent if another human could not tell the difference between the responses of a human and the artificially intelligent machine,” remains the ideal toward which AI continues to strive. Additionally, Turing’s work in cryptography played a critical role in the Allied victory in World War II. He developed codebreaking machines and algorithms, which revealed the positions of Nazi Germany’s U-Boats and detailed Hitler’s communications with his generals. Copeland suggests that the contributions of Turing and his team may have shortened the war by two to four years, which translates, by his calculations, into 14 to 21 million lives saved.

For his outsized contributions to the war effort and for revolutionizing the shape of modern sciences, economies, and societies, you might expect Turing to have been lauded as a national hero. Instead, in 1952 Turing was convicted of “gross indecency” after reporting a petty burglary that a male lover of his participated in—homosexuality being illegal at the time. He was offered a choice between imprisonment, and chemical castration through injections of a synthetic estrogen. He chose the latter. In 1954, he died of cyanide poisoning; an event many suspect was a suicide—though Copeland contends that the evidence for this is scant. In 2009 then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology for the government’s treatment of Turing.

What does all this have to do with Jewish ethics? As it turns out, plenty. We can read Turing’s ordeal at the hands of British indecency law as a modern example of what the Talmud calls “verbal wronging.” Commenting on Mishnah Bava Metzia 4:10, which states, “Just as there is [fraud by] overreaching in buying and selling, so there is wrong done by words,” b. Bava Metzia 58b records the following discussion:

R. Johanan said on the authority of R. Simeon b. Yohai: Verbal wrong is more heinous than monetary wrong…R. Eleazar said: The one affects his person, the other [only] his money.  R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: For [monetary wronging] restoration is possible, but not for [verbal wronging.]

A tanna recited before R. Nahman b. Isaac: He who publicly shames his neighbor is as though he had shed blood. Whereupon he remarked to him, “You say well, for I have seen it [as a result of such shaming], the ruddiness departing and paleness supervening.”[1]

This passage does a couple of interesting things. First, and most obviously, it understands a form of unquantifiable, non-material damage as greater than material wrong—precisely for the reason of its unquantifiability. If I know exactly how much someone has lost due to a wrong, I stand a chance of being able to make it up to them; and if I know a person has lost something material, I know that there is a tangible means by which I might be able to make restitution. To use Abraham Joshua Heschel’s language, monetary wrong is a wrong done in space, and a change to a space at least stands a chance of being undone. Verbal wronging, on the other hand, is a wrong done in time.[2] Once someone has seen or heard something, I cannot (short of erasing their memory in some way, which would likely involve grievous physical harm) make them unsee or unhear it, because I cannot erase the moment in time in which the perception took place.

Second, it recognizes that not only a person’s psyche, but their social self as well, is integral to their being. Furthermore, these aspects of the self are just as vulnerable to real injury as the physical aspect—the text goes so far as to explicitly compare, in somatic, visual terms, the result of shaming to that of physically drawing blood. In doing so, the text recognizes that a person is complex and interconnected, irreducible to a single feature, and vulnerable in many different ways.

If Turing did in fact commit suicide as a result of his ordeal, this would be a case where verbal wronging quite literally resulted in bloodshed. It would also not be the only case in which bloodshed has literally resulted from verbal wronging—one need only look at the recent rash of queer teen suicides in response to anti-gay bullying. Even if Turing did not commit suicide, however, his case and others like it stand as testimony to the pettiness of such shaming, and to the tangible damage it can do.

Consider that Turing’s sexuality harmed no one. Consider that his sexuality was exposed in the process of his actually performing a civic duty—reporting an actual crime. For this he was rewarded with a prosecution that besmirched his name and wasted public time and money, as well as his own. In the end he was offered a choice a choice between two significant injuries: the loss of his freedom and career, or the loss of his sexuality. I would suggest we consider the number of lives he saved and his contributions to a discipline without which all our lives would be radically different, but the truth is, what was done to Turing would have been just as wrong had it been done to anyone else.

There is one sense, however, in which comparing the pettiness of Turing’s shaming to the vast weight of his accomplishments serves to highlight an especially sinister feature of verbal wronging:  it makes a person’s life entirely about the ways in which they differ from a prescribed standard.  The whole person—their accomplishments, their interests, their loves, their sense of self—become inconsequential. They are reduced to a single act or characteristic that has been marked as worthy of derision, and in this way they are marked as other, and dehumanized. This is true of the all-too-common phenomenon of slut-shaming, which I discussed in a previous article. It is true of the anti-gay bullying which continues to drive too many youth to suicide, it is true of Turing’s treatment, and it is true of countless other cases in which we publicly shame people over actions or characteristics which have no bearing on our own lives (but which may be immensely and legitimately important to the victim of that shame). And it stands in direct contrast to the broad and complex vision of humanity suggested by our Talmudic text.

Cross-Posted to my personal blog.

This photograph, of a sculpture of Turing at Bletchley Park, England, was taken by Jon Callas. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons and is used in accordance with a Creative Commons 2.0 license.


[1] Soncino Translation.

[2] See A.J. Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1951, 1979)

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2 thoughts on “The Wronging Of Alan Turing: Sex, Shame, and the Complexity of a Human Being

  1. Rebecca, thanks for the thought-provoking discussion. Not often that our worlds come together!

    There have been a number of articles recently about Turing and his contributions both to science generally and to shortening the war, with the attendant savings of life. I had read about him some years ago, but the new articles have been eye opening. And your interpretation adds a new angle to my understanding.

    BTW, I like the photo by Jon Callas. He’s a brilliant guy, as well as a damn good photographer (I worked with him in the late 1990s).

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