In his book, All Things Considered, G. K. Chesterton wrote
“Anonymous journalism is dangerous, and is poisonous in our existing life simply because it is so rapidly becoming an anonymous life. That is the horrible thing about our contemporary atmosphere. Society is becoming a secret society. The modern tyrant is evil because of his elusiveness. He is more nameless than his slave. He is not more of a bully than the tyrants of the past; but he is more of a coward.”
Chesterton wrote these words in 1908 and, his great genius notwithstanding, could not have known about that looming digital hydra known to us today as the Internet, yet it would be difficult to find a more apt characterization of the Internet than the above few lines – especially the part proclaiming anonymity as cowardice, a sentiment with which I emphatically agree. The Internet didn’t invent the scurrilous practice of anonymous attack but it has unarguably provided a vast and sheltering venue for those who would spread their venom with little or no danger of reprisal or sanction.
Internet anonymity, like love, hides a multiplicity of sins, but, as Proverbs 17:9 tells us, love overlooks transgression to draw people closer together. Contumacious electronic anonymity on the other hand seeks only nefarious ends. Nowhere is this notion more validated than in the “Comments” section of virtually any website, whether blog, news source, opinion column, or commercial site.
It has become sport of the meanest kind to digitally and anonymously snipe with impunity at anyone who dares to tender ideas, thoughts, opinions, articles or any other kind of expression. Everything is now fair game for the incognito, the pseudonymous, the unidentified, the innominate, and all the others of purposeful namelessness – all species of that noxious genus Internetus posterus anonymosus, variety Lowus Informationus Commenterus.
The Internet has made this possible – man’s fundamental perversity has made it inevitable, and the complex nature of the ‘Net has made it virtually unpunishable. The “Comment” section has become a haven for small minds; opinions, no matter how inane, offensive or unsourced, are completely unmoored from any vestige of personal responsibility.
More than 100 years ago, George Bernard Shaw noted that hatred is the coward’s revenge for being intimidated, and these no-name denizens are rightly called cowards – cowards who hate and bizarrely conflate anonymity with courage; unsigned ad hominem is their only refuge.
I recently had an exchange with an anonymous commenter on this topic; he/she claimed that anonymity in commenting was prudent because someone (anonymously, of course) had taken umbrage at a comment and threatened him/her (the exact wording was something like “You better watch what you post, buddy!”). To this frightened commenter, I can only note that if one presents opinions in such tone and language as to incite threats of violence, then maybe one needs to reconsider either the opinion or at the very least the manner in which it is stated, or both. I have been posting under my own name for a long time, and no one yet has offered to whup me, or burn my house, or anything of the sort. Several have offered speculations on my IQ, my ancestry, and my general worth as a human being but hey – if you’re going to ride, you’re going to feel the wind once in a while.
Knowing that we will be held to account for our actions and opinions has a profound leavening effect on what we do and say … and write in a comment section. Remember: the worst people are not those who disagree with you, but those who are too cowardly to own that disagreement.
There is a concept used primarily in the field of economics known as “moral hazard”, which Wiki defines as “a situation where a party will have a tendency to take risks because the costs that could result will not be felt by the party taking the risk.” That neatly describes the anonymous commenter – he/she is incentivized to say pretty much anything – the more outrageous the better – because there is essentially no liability involved for the commenter, no matter how egregious his/her postings may be. In other words, no downside, no consequence, no matter how shameful the misconduct. That is simply wrong, by any ethical system one embraces.
There are many spurious arguments made in favor of maintaining anonymity when expressing opinions; the most common are:
1) Identification may imperil one’s person or possessions; I have dealt with this above.
2) Anonymity is somehow protected, even encouraged, by the U.S. Constitution; this is a sham contention. Some quote the so-called “privacy clause”, however the Constitution does not specifically mention a right to privacy. It is true that Supreme Court decisions over the years have established the right to privacy as a basic human right by virtue of their collective interpretations of the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 9th and 14th Amendments. The Court has generally read the various “guarantees” of the cited Amendments to guarantee a fairly broad right of privacy encompassing decisions about child rearing, procreation, marriage, and termination of medical treatment. It is, however, instructive to note that the cases upon which this interpretation rests involve protections for parties aggrieved, not for those assaulting the wronged party. This, it seems to me, hardly embodies Constitutional protection for what often amounts to little more than hate speech.
3) Perhaps the most popular justification for anonymous word-mongering is the bogus claim that The Federalist was written completely anonymously. If some of the most famous political document(s) in our history were authored by unnamed sources, the argument goes, all anonymous polemic is therefore legitimized. The fact is that we are well aware today, and those contemporaneous with the writers were aware of or could easily discover, who wrote which Federalist Paper. In fact, an edition of The Federalist printed a few years after it was written actually identified the authors (Madison, Hamilton, and Jay) by name. The “anonymous” publication of a wide range of opinion was standard practice in colonial America; it was a matter of authorial fashion in which opiners assumed nom de plumes, usually of Roman or Greek extraction such as” Publius”, “Junius”, etc., in order, one presumes, to lend an air of gravitas as well as voguish currency to their writings. Here is a quote from Joseph N. Hosteny, an intellectual property attorney and former Assistant US Attorney, from a piece entitled “The Federalist Papers Versus Anonymous Bloggers”: “Modern bloggers and commenters need some standards. They should check their facts….[and] They should be willing to stand behind what they say, by disclosing their identities.” (emphasis added – auth.) Moreover, even had the composers of the Federalist been truly anonymous, the caliber of their thinking and authorship was demonstratively superior to that of today’s secret complainers. To again quote Hosteny, “unlike so many of the posters these days, the authors of the Federalist Papers had actually gotten past third grade. They could spell, punctuate, construct a sentence, and didn’t use emoticons … Today’s lesser commenters don’t measure up to those standards.”
Let me close as I began – with Chesterton, who says to those who think their anonymous cavilings bold and courageous:
“It is not so much that we are too bold…it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities…”
Bottom line? If you choose not to include your name with your opinion, then neither is worth very much.