Pardon?

I used to be dubious that doing things like, say, changing your Facebook avatar to the “marriage equality” symbol had much effect.

But psychological research suggests that most people are quite strongly swayed in their opinions and attitudes by what they think the opinions of others are. (Links on this still to come…)

An example of this was noticed in a US national park, where it was found that a sign informing visitors that “Many other visitors respect the environment and do not litter” (or some similar phrase) was visibly more effective than a sign which asked visitors not to be one of the many visitors that did litter.

So public displays of attitudes matter.

The UK Parliament has just pardoned Alan Turing for the crime of “gross indecency”, for which he was given a probationary sentence in 1952.

A natural question is, “Why not pardon everyone else convicted under that law?” (for instance, Oscar Wilde, but also hundreds of less notable individuals), but from the fairly wide support I’ve seen for the pardon on social media, I don’t think most people will think through the issue that far.

I think a conversation with the average, progressive Western citizen (APWC) on the subject would go something like this (in fact, I’ve had a couple of on-line conversations which have gone very much along these lines):

APWC: They’ve finally pardoned Turing. About time, too!

Me: Although of course, Turing’s dead, so it can’t do him any good.

APWC: Yes, but still, it has symbolic value.

Me: And if they’re pardoning Turing, shouldn’t they pardon everyone else convicted under that law?

APWC: Well, yes, probably. But it’s a good start.

Me: And by pardoning just one person, isn’t Parliament sending the message that being gay is only OK if you’re a war hero?

APWC: Look, at least they’re pardoning SOMEONE. Like I said, it’s a good start.

And since most people, I think, won’t consider the issue at more than a very basic level, it turns out it is a good start. It’s a public demonstration of regret that a gay person was discriminated against, and helps send a message that Society thinks this was the wrong thing to do.

Most people – I’d speculate – absorb social attitudes by osmosis, rather than through critical thought. I recall one of the participants in the videos of the “Moving Naturalism Forward” workshop pointing out that when homosexuality was widely considered wrong, his parents (vaguely) considered it wrong, or at least abnormal; and through some imperceptible process, they now consider it acceptable, and discrimination against gays wrong, probably without giving any great amount of critical thought to the matter. Though anecdotal, this story certainly resonates with me.

It makes me wonder whether thinking too hard about moral problems could actually make you a worse person. You might explicitly reason your way to a particular moral conclusion; but then, having done so, you may become attached to that conclusion, particularly if you’ve expressed it in public – there’s also research evidence that “cognitive dissonance” tends to deter people from changing their publicly expressed opinions – and become inured to changing social attitudes.

I suspect that if you want to think critically about moral issues, you have to be unusually willing to change your mind, consider other points of view, and be prepared to be undecided on some things rather than coming to a hasty conclusion. But that’s a whole other topic.

This is a pretty simple analysis – I haven’t got into whether Parliament’s intent matters in this case, or whether it can even have intent – I’m just suggesting that due to the way most people form opinions, the effects of the UK Parliament’s action can be beneficial.

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