Tuesday, 11 December 2012

To Name Or Not to Name: That Is the Question (About Free Speech?)

A seasoned blogger friend asked me a very good question: do I really want my name attached to my page, given that it can have professional repercussions?  Certainly, as an academic, I am used to attaching my name to publications and grant applications. But I often advise students to be careful about their online persona.  I rarely post comments even on topics of personal and professional interests partly because of that.  I occasionally agree to media requests for interviews only because I think we (academics) have a civic responsibility to engage in and promote public dialogues – although I also worry that our clips when taken out of context can make us look like idiots rather than foster real discussions.  

As a relatively private person, it surprises even me that I’m blogging.  Certainly, the views expressed here or elsewhere are mine, not those of my employers.  And I’m not blogging to a professional or an academic audience.  And I doubt that many people will be reading this (but I appreciate all of you who do read this!).  But still, wouldn’t I be freer to write whatever I want if I remain anonymous?

J. S. Mill famously argued that freedom of expression allows competing opinions to be aired.  In the marketplace of ideas, communication that can be perceived as offensive may foster more dialogues that can help us to search for and discover the truth.  Even self-censorship may stifle productive discussions.

I can imagine that there are people who may only feel free to offer their thoughts and engage in dialogues if they could remain anonymous, since some of their opinions can be perceived to be offensive.  And let’s face it – some of us can get offended by many things.  But more importantly, allowing anonymous posting may be necessary for those in marginalized communities to challenge the status quo.  Their viewpoints are often silenced by those in the more powerful groups, and their act of rebellion or whistleblowing can cost them dearly. 

Those exceptions notwithstanding, I would think that we should own up to our ideas and allow them to be challenged.  While being anonymous may allow me to say whatever I want, the purpose of writing this blog isn’t about that.  Saying whatever one wants can have great shock value, but it isn’t always a good way to promote open dialogues.  

Some of you, particularly those living in the US, may remember the free speech controversy in October.  Adrian Chen from Gawker unmasked a popular anonymous blogger who, hiding behind anonymity, created sub-forums on whatever he wanted on the online community Reddit. I have no interest in seeing images of scantily-clad underage girls and other nauseating materials posted by the self-described “creepy uncle of Reddit.” But I doubt that Michael Brutsch was trying to promote the search for any kind of truths, even if the context around the exposé has subsequently fostered discussions of whether unmasking his identity would truly compromise the free marketplace of ideas.

A friend who wanted to post her thoughts on my previous entry alerted me that my page required some sort of profile to post comments.  I subsequently found out that I could allow readers to post anonymously, and I changed the settings accordingly.  With that in mind, would that make you more likely to share your thoughts?  I’m most curious to see how many of you would leave me a comment – with your identity revealed, or masked. :)

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  1. Ideally, I should not think/say what is not suitable for public consumption. That said, there are topics (everyone can guess his/her own ;p) in which a little protection can go a long way.

    1. Thanks for this, Debbie. Indeed, there are many topics that I am very tempted to talk about but will unlikely do so on a public forum. Well, we'll see ;)

      Perhaps part of the question is why one might want protection. There is a distinction between worrying that one could be victimized when one's identity is known and affording oneself the luxury to victimize others behind anonymity. The latter is what concerns me.

  2. I liken anonymous blogging to playing the Wizard of OZ, using smoke & mirrors to appear to be a fascinating wizard.

    I have a blog on an adult site. I can remain anonymous, but I have face pictures attached and many people have recognized me, including my brother and my husband's friends.
    I'm also not as conservative as I probably should be on Facebook.
    I see it this way: take what you like of me, ignore the parts you don't like. Not everyone is going to like all of me.
    On the other hand, my indiscretions may someday bite me in the ass. I believe that what I think or do in my spare time should have no impact on other parts of my life.
    I know I have offended people with some of my more passionate advocate causes. This has caused me to lose a friend or two, and family members to ignore me. So far, I see it as no loss.
    However, my children could be affected if, for example, parents of their friends recognize me together with my writings, and they choose to believe it makes me a bad influence.
    I'd say that's the only thing I worry about.

    Sandra Collisson here. :)

    1. Interesting, 'anonymous' Sandra :) This brings up another dimension -- how people take small pieces of information and make general assumptions about us. While I'm not sure that we can separate all different aspects of our life, I certainly share your concern that people may make unfair and premature judgements about us based on some of our causes.

      This is interesting, particularly because it also raises questions of whether we should continue to hold certain professionals (e.g., physicians) or politicians to higher moral standards in their personal life than the rest of the population.

      Fun to get your thoughts, Sandra! :)

  3. Oh, Anita, you have a thousand good topics for discussion here.

    As in most things, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer about naming yourself in a blog. Personally, I would like to think discussion is a great thing, something to be encouraged, whether it's anonymous or not. After all, free speech is a hallmark of our society.

    But I also believe that I shouldn’t post anything online that I wouldn’t say to someone in person.

    However, I also have to be aware that there may be consequences. If I stand up in a room full of Canuck fans and point out how great Bruins are, I’d better be prepared for what happens next. Some topics can more incendiary than others.

  4. Indeed, Joe, a right to free speech does not include a right to utter fighting words/hate speech. But as the lockout continues, can you still find a room full of Canucks/Bruins fans :)?

    I would certainly agree that it is unwise to say anything that can provoke a drunk audience that is also consumed by a mob mentality, even if the problem isn't the speaker, but the listeners. Eek!

  5. I think it ought to be possible to express one's ideas anonymously if one wishes to do so because of vulnerability, but in general i think opinions are more powerful (and credible) if we can state them publicly and we know we will have to stand by them and justify them if challenged. When we disclose our identity we are making a kind of meta-statement about our own integrity because we are saying to any possible reader/listener that these utterances may be held up to my history of prior statements and commitments--in any realm of my life. They have to hold together or i have to be prepared to explain any apparent inconsistencies. That's a pretty high standard to hold yourself up to, but it commands respect and will be taken seriously, even by detractors. So for important topics in public life this is the preferred way to go, in my view.
    But not all utterances are meant to be heard by everyone in the world. We have (real, live) conversations with certain individuals or certain groups that we wouldn't have with others, and we don't see anything wrong with that. Not everyone knows every facet of our being--that might actually be a bit distracting or confusing sometimes. Looked at from this angle, the anonymity chosen by some people is just a practical response to the incontinence of this medium: in the pre-internet era you didn't have many aspects of your personal life instantly available to anyone who can google your name, or even your image.

    1. Thanks for the eloquent comments, Richard! I agree that standing behind one's ideas and being prepared to justify them when challenged is quite a high standard to uphold. It's definitely an ideal to strive for, but I also have to admit that I was definitely not one who was quick to share her ideas. Not even before the internet age.

      As I often tell my students, I was one of those really quiet ones in undergrad. Oh heck, even in my graduate programs. Or even now, depending on the situation. Perhaps because English was not my first language, it was difficult for me to think on the spot in English, let alone to verbalize it in front of others. And since many of my ideas were just coming off the top of my head, or were at best half-baked, I wasn't sure if I would actually be able to justify them. But I suppose that's part of the issue as well. Those who may really want to test out their ideas may worry that they could be dismissed from the get go. I have certainly seen or experienced that myself.

      On your last point, I better check what images of me are out there ;)