The Imitation Game
We followed up our recent watching of Selma with the watching of another of last year’s best movies, The Imitation Game. Like Selma, I thought it had several great themes, which I’ll only touch on quickly.
Of the many great themes, this is the one that struck me the most. Studying computer science, I knew in broad terms about Turing and his work in World War II, as well as the “Turing Test” (his original title: Imitation Game) which was a key idea in my cognitive science studies. I knew the general information about the technology involved and I knew he ultimately killed himself after being chemically castrated for being gay.
I don’t remember ever coming up as part of the story, however, that once they had cracked the German code machine Enigma, they had to decide how much to use it. They could not simply act on every coded message they received; if they did that, the Germans would inevitably figure out that they had broken Enigma and come up with a new one. Of course they wanted to use it as much as they could to save as many lives as they could, but how do you find the right balance?
That is the question that they had to wrestle with. Among other things, it meant that they sat by while a brother of one of their team died. That scene was the most poignant in the movie to me. They decided who lived and who died, based on statistical analysis. They played God with millions of lives. They didn’t want to, but they felt like they had to – and they were probably right, not necessarily in every calculation but at least in the general idea.
The homophobia surrounding Turing was also saddening, although definitely less surprising. Two characters respond neutrally when they find out. One is his fiancée Joan, who as a woman working in mathematics surrounded by men was also used to be an outcast. The other was one of his coworkers who turned out to be a Soviet spy (the Soviets were allies at this time), so he was another outcast and quickly saw the mutual benefit of keeping Alan’s secret in exchange for Alan keeping his. Nobody else really seems to know until he is arrested for using a male prostitute, at which point he is given the choice between jail or chemical castration, ultimately leading to his suicide.
The need for difference
The key line of the movie, repeated three times, is this:
It is often the people that nobody imagines anything of who do the things nobody can imagine.
Turing himself is of course the prime example. He was not only gay, but lacked in social skills. Today, we might wonder if he was on the autism spectrum. That difference was constantly pushed down by bullies, by his military superiors, and by his coworkers. What would have happened if they had succeeded in pushing him away? Enigma probably never would have been broken. An estimated 14 million more lives would have been lost over an extra 2 years of war. Because he was different – as were Joan and other characters.
Taking the pleasure out of violence
On a less central note, Turing says something early in the movie during a flashback to being bullied in his childhood. He has just been nailed down under the floor. There are big enough cracks to breath, but it is dark and I’m sure still pretty terrifying. The kids above him dance and yell as they hearing him pounding to try to get out.
Then he says:
Do you know why people like violence? It is because it feels good. Humans find violence deeply satisfying. But remove the satisfaction, and the act becomes… hollow.
He suddenly goes completely quiet. The kids stop dancing or yelling above him. They call his name a few times. He doesn’t respond. They walk away, now bored that their fun is over.
That is an interesting aspect of violence to consider. I don’t think most do it out of boredom – usually out of the assumption that what I want is more important than the life of others – but some definitely do. If we take away that pleasure, what happens? There isn’t much point and they move on.
It isn’t too far off from Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. He advises his followers (us) to do things like turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, and give your coat, too. These are things that took the pleasure – or at least the sense of superiority – out of the wrongs being down to you. They assert that you are an equal. I think Turing was onto that.