While I expect it’s cold comfort to Publius, I suppose Ed Whelan should get some modicum of credit for realizing—however belatedly—that his “outing” of his pseudonymous interlocutor was wrong. I might have gone with something stronger than “uncharitable”—”crass” and “petty” spring to mind—but let’s face it, a second-thought and an apology are so rare in contemporary political discourse that I’m not disposed to look a gift horse in the mouth. It doesn’t make up for the original act, but given the tone of left-right interaction, on the rare occasions we see actual interaction, it’s got to be hard to step back, reevaluate, and admit you’re in the wrong, so I guess it’s a hopeful sign that there are folks still capable of that.
That said, the furor has provied an occasion to mull over the role of pseudonymity or anonymity in online political speech. I mentioned it below, but I think it’s really worth examining the supposition that pseudonymous (as opposed to genuinely anonymous) blogging leads to more vicious or debased dialogue. The assumption that it does, I want to suggest, is an improper generalization from our experience with comment threads and chat boards where—first—pseudonyms are so readily disposable that there’s effective anonymity, and—second—people aren’t engaged in the kind of longer-term project that a blog signifies, nor are they subject to the “brand” constraints such a project imposes, even without a real name. When I actually think about the nastiest, most bilious blogs I encounter, they’re mostly ones people sign their names to. Now, in part, that may be because there’s a higher bar for anonymous bloggers to get on the radar, so there’s lots of even nastier anonymous blogs I never see—but if so, great, the market (so to speak) is working.
I also note a distinct difference in the way people approached the question of pseudonymity. Stipulate at the outset—as most folks seem to—that barring extraordinary circumstances (unambiguous libel, incitement to harrassment) Americans have a clear constitutional right to anonymous speech and that, again barring exceptional circumstances, other Americans have an equal First Amendment right to name them if they happen to be privy to that information. Everyone’s really arguing about norms—about what conduct we should consider out of bounds, things decent people just don’t do. And I’ve been interested to see how differently some other folks frame the question. Some think that what’s relevant is the character of the outed person—that using a pseudonym is “cowardly” or “hiding.” Maybe it is—though again, it seems presumptuous to assume you know in advance whether someone has a good reason for not using his real name—but I’m not sure why it matters. Isn’t the right response to point out that an interlocutor hasn’t the courage to put his name to his words, rather than trying to punish him for a perceived character defect? And if pointing this out turns out not to make much difference to the argument—as I expect it wouldn’t have in this case—then why is cowardice any more relevant than a dozen other character defects someone might have? Instead of trying to form overall character judgments about people from a few blog posts, shouldn’t we be asking the more straightforward question of whether exposure serves some interest more weighty than a vindictive impulse? “He had it coming” is rarely a good justification for anything all by itself.
Still, I was interested in the frequent assumption—rather circular in the context of an argument about norms of pseudonymity—that exposure is just the cost you have to accept for putting your opinions out there. Certainly it may be that one should anticipate the risk of being outed, just as one should know there’s a risk of being mugged if you walk through certain neighborhoods at certain hours decked out in Prada. That’s not actually a defense of either outing or mugging, though. For my part, I spent enough time as a teen and a college student in fora where “handles” were the norm that I just wholly lack this apparently widespread intuition that one ought to put one’s name to opinions by default, absent some special justification. In a lot of ways, I’d think the modern media context makes the case for a pseudonymous default that much stronger. Because being a prominent blogger in the 21st century means, in at least a minor way, being a sort of public figure. Lots of people seem to love the idea, but plenty of others don’t. As the exploits of one Joe Wurzelbacher demonstrate, it can even happen somewhat accidentally if you voice a political opinion in the right place at the right time.
That, I think, is how we need to frame the question, because that’s the real tradeoff. Is it reasonable to expect that anyone who wants to express a political opinion in our central discursive medium must be willing to become a public figure, with all that entails? It’s not Norman Rockwell’s everyman standing up to unleash a stemwinder at the town meeting anymore: Political conversation has moved online, and unless you’re in some affinity group’s walled garden, the audience for those conversations is always, at least potentially, the whole of the Net. New media have empowered ordinary people to make their views heard on a vastly greater scale than was possible a few decades ago, but the cost is in control of the scale. There used to be a bright line between what was said around the table with some friends at a café, or at a community meeting, in a talk to a local civic group, in an interview on local radio, on national television. You had some sense of what you were getting into when you decided to share your thoughts. Now, an Alaska homemaker can send a few friends an e-mail with her take on Sarah Palin and find it being discussed on National Public Radio a few days later. It’s great when people are prepared to back their opinions so wholeheartedly, but it sounds like an awfully high entry fee to demand of anyone who wants into our public conversation about politics—or at least anyone who plans to express a strong view about the people who have chosen to make themselves public figures.
Addendum: One of my pseudo-pseudonymous colleagues at The Economist weighs in. (“Pseudo” both because we actually just have shared datelines, and because it’s pretty damn easy to figure out, say, which “Washington” posts are mine and which are Dave Weigel’s.) And it actually strikes me that the comment section there is a pretty good illustration of the important difference between anonymity and pseudonymity. Now, maybe the editors actually spend more time than I realize clearing out nasty or stupid comments, but I think it’s generally striking how high-quality the comment discourse is there as compared with the stereotypically splenetic comment section. Maybe it’s just that Economist readers are unusually civil, but I think the more likely explanation is that people have to register to post, which ties their comments to a consistent online persona, even if it doesn’t bear the user’s real name. I don’t think either Publius or Anonymous Liberal—whose characterization of Whelan as a say-anything legal “hitman” seems to have set Whelan off—went any further in anything they wrote than I would in a bad mood, under my own name. Actually, I’m curious, can the folks who want to claim that pseudonymous bloggers are generally nastier than others find a genuinely prominent or high-profile pseud who routinely dishes out attacks more vicious than named writers commonly make?
Addendum II: As a follow up to the “public figure” considerations above, I want to focus on the non-sequitur claim that one person’s free choice to use his own real name somehow confers a right—as a matter of “fairness”—to unilaterally impose the same choice on his interlocutors. I hope it’s obvious to most why that sort of claim is nonsense, but I want to point out a slightly less obvious asymmetry that its acceptance gives rise to. If you are a professional writer or pundit or activist, using your own name on your public writing will generally be a professional advantage: One of your primary goals is to get your name out there. If you are not a professional pundit—if you’re, say, an untenured academic, or someone who depends on controversy-shy clients for a living—then what is an advantage to the pro is much more likely to be a liability for you, at least until you’re on firmer ground. Now, it seems silly in itself to insist that “fairness” mandates the sort of mechanical equality that compels one person to accept a benefit while another accepts a liability. But it also seems undesirable to advocate a rule that systematically encourages pros and discourages everyone else from participating in public conversation. And it seems perverse to embed this imbalance under the banner of a confused desire to put differetly situated people on “equal” footing.