The Sensible Knave

"I do not see that we are further along today than where Hume left us. The Humean predicament is the human predicament." - W.V.O. Quine

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Is anonymity cowardly?

Many bloggers look down on their anonymous brethren, those who blog under aliases, pseudonyms, pen-names, monikers, call signs, nicknames, or serial numbers. Those who take cheap shots from behind a screen of secrecy are especially likely to incur much wrath (see here and here). The basis of the criticism is that it is cowardly to avoid the risk of repercussions of personal expression. If what you have to say is worth saying, the argument goes, you should own your words, and that means you should accept the consequences of their expression.

Many people think that there is much to fear in putting one's good name behind half-baked ideas as they are uploaded for all the world to see. They may be right, some of the time. It's not all that hard for an aspiring academic to hurt one's chances by leaving a digital paper trail. Outside of academia, bloggers might be afraid of losing their jobs, alienating friends, and so on.

In these cases, the decision to blog anonymously is made from fear, but is it cowardice? I'm afraid of fire, but I'm not a coward for choosing to run away from an empty burning building. I would think myself a coward for choosing to run instead of rushing in to save my dogs. To be cowardly is to act from fear when some other consideration dictates otherwise. Sure, this is vague, but it's clear enough to help illustrate why the mere anonymous presentation of ideas is not cowardly.

Some people wish to present their clever insights and ideas to the world. Blogging can be a great mode of presentation. Readers are free to evaluate these ideas and respond. If personal identification contributes nothing to the force of these ideas, then why is it cowardly to withhold it?

Sure, one can be brave by standing behind one's views in the light of day, but it is not always cowardly to fail to act bravely. Many acts of bravery involve overcoming fear in going beyond the call of duty (i.e., the circumstances don't call for one to overcome fear). Taking a public stand on a controversial issue involves this sort of bravery, if any.

There may yet be ways of using one's anonymity to act cowardly, however. Insulting a fellow blogger anonymously could be cowardly. It's almost like bad-mouthing someone, and honor generally requires us to say means things to another's face, if at all. While I think that many bloggers could stand to become more civil, the anonymous ones have a special obligation to do so.