Sunday, June 7, 2009

Bruce Wayne is the mask Batman wears

Over at Obsidian Wings two of their pseudonymous bloggers, Hilzoy and Publius - both professors at different institutions - have recently had their identities outed against their wishes - both by people whose arguments they had criticized in blog posts. And while Hilzoy's outing seemed less driven by retribution for the criticism than the more recent and much more vicious outing of Publius, both outings were unnecessary and unwarranted by the criticism which elicited the revealing of their true identities.

Anonymity and pseudonymity - I take it the two are distinct - are important to this blog and to many of its readers. Most of us here want to protect our true identities for various reasons, but (probably) mostly to do with lack of job security and the critical (or revealing) nature of many of our posts. The pseudonyms many of us adopt allow us to speak more freely and truthfully than we otherwise would were we afraid that doing so would damage our (low) standing in the profession, would incur retribution from those we criticize, or would reveal something to our colleagues or family we wouldn't want to otherwise reveal. And, I take it this is part of the point Publius makes in response to his outing.

Now, as Hilzoy hints at in her outstanding post addressing Publius' outing, there's no reason to think that simply adopting a pseudonym or remaining anonymous is itself an expression of a desire to remain unaccountable for what one says or provides a license to act irresponsibly. And though many do want to be unaccountable for what they say on the internet so they can act irresponsibly, I think that so long as the reasons for blogging pseudonymously are those in the above paragraph, I'm with Hilzoy when she says, "I think there is a presumption that people should be able to decide for themselves what facts about themselves to reveal; and that decent people should respect this, absent some compelling reason not to."

Brian Leiter, one of the more ardent critics in the philosophy blogosphere of anonymity and its abuse on the internet, has tackled this general issue before and more recently has updated an old post in response to the outing of Publius. In the former, he remarks, "That someone chooses to blog anonymously creates no moral or legal obligation for anyone else to honor that choice." In the latter, Leiter states (while also acknowledging how reprehensible he finds Publius' outer intellectually), "[He] can certainly understand why he would identify a blogger who repeatedly attacked him."

I think the first comment - in relation to the generation of moral obligation - is wrongheaded for reasons similar to those Hilzoy gives above and for others. She states, "By outing someone, you are deciding, on that person's behalf, to incur whatever consequences outing that person might have. If you don't know whether or not the [circumstances generating the reasons for someone's blogging pseudonymously] obtain, you ought to err on the side of caution, absent a strong reason for outing the person in question." In other words, the reasons for outing someone's identity (taking into account the consequences of such an outing) should outweigh the reasons to not reveal their identity - reasons I take to be tied up with a more general respect for the wishes and projects of others.

And, I think, ceteris paribus one should respect the wishes and projects of others, and to allow them 'to decide for themselves what facts about themselves to reveal' to others. Of course, the scales can tip in favor of revealing someone's identity, but, along with Hilzoy, I think there should at least be a presumption in favor of not doing so since, generally, the reasons for respecting the wishes, projects, and decisions of others will outweigh the reasons for outing that person. You may not want to call this an obligation, but I think it's close enough.

This is why I find Leiter's second comment, in effect sympathizing with Publius' outer, disheartening. Of course - as we all know - Leiter is often the target of unfair, irresponsible, and vicious attacks from anonymous (and otherwise) sources on the internet (I even, regrettably, linked to what may have been perceived to be such an attack on Leiter in the form of a survey; that was a mistake on my part). Maybe this is why he says he can understand why this person outed Publius' identity. But, the outing in this case was especially egregious as it was not prompted by a vicious, unfair, or irresponsible attack (read here). The outing was done with the intent of damaging Publius, not in response to anything of substance in the original criticism. It was internet bullying, nothing more, nothing less, and there is no reason to sympathize with the outer whose ideas were the brunt of the original criticism.

More generally (and separate from anything Leiter says), I think that outing someone's identity who chooses to remain anonymous or pseudonymous - and who behaves responsibly - is not something to be cheered, or to be shrugged off even if there is no damage incurred by the outing. There are many reasons to blog under a pseudonym and they are important to those of us who do so. And so long as those reasons have nothing to do with being unaccountable for or irresponsible in what we post, I think these reasons should place strong considerations in favor of respecting the desires of certain bloggers to remain pseudonymous.



Mr. Zero said...

Totally agree with you and Hilzoy. I'm disappointed in Leiter. I would have hoped that even he could see that whether or not publius had been "repeatedly attacked" was less important than whether the attacks were fair, and whether outing was a proportional response. (They were, and it wasn't.) I mean seriously. You react to criticism with counter-argument. You don't respond to criticism by revealing personal information about your critic. Unless you're in junior high.

And I was disappointed in Leiter's blanket pronouncement that no junior law professor could have a good reason for blogging pseudonymously. Publius states a convincing reason: to keep his political persona out of the classroom.

And boo--BOO!--for Ed Whelan.

Anonymous said...

I second Mr. Zero's comment. It is similar to what is fallacious in an argument ad hominem. Inability to counter interlocutor 2's argument leads interlocutor 1 to resort to an ignoble tactic--attacking the person, not the argument. Similarly, inability to counter interlocutor 2's argument leads interlocutor 1 to resort to another ignoble tactic--outing the identity of interlocutor 2. Will someone who does not fear Leiter's wrath explain this to him (Leiter) non-anonymously or pseudonymously?

Matthew Pianalto said...

I've only skimmed the many comments about this, and certainly agree that "outing" a person is not a substitute for responding to the content of what one has to say. And I understand why some would choose to blog anonymously. But I'm also often disgusted by what many people (trolls) do under the cover of anonymity (or pseudonymity; I'm not entirely sure I get the substantive difference in the blogosphere, as opposed to the Batman case...). I do think anonymous folks can have a sober discussion about many things on the web. But at the same time, it strikes me that anyone who chooses to blog or comment under conditions of anonymity has to assume the risk of being outed. If you don't want your cover blown, you should take all care not to let your true identity become known. Hilzoy may indeed be correct that it would be morally obtuse for an outer to say "well, what did you expect?" But it seems prudentially obtuse to expect, in all circumstances, "fair play." In a pinch--and even allowing that there may well be something deeply dishonorable in using "outing" as a tactic--one should be willing to own up to what one says under the guise of anonymity and pseudonimity. And sure, there are reasons, as Mr. Zero, mentions for using a pseudonym to create some distance between, for example, one's classroom persona and one's persona as a defender of particular positions or causes. But, to take a related issue, if you don't want certain people to be able to learn certain things about you on Facebook, either don't put it up, or change your security settings. If you put it out there, you have to assume the risks of doing so. (And let's not confuse that with the ethics of other people posting revealing information about you.) So even while I agree that it's typically wrong (and irrelevant) to out a blogger, those who go in for pseudonimity are not, by that choice, relieved of the responsibility of assuming (and prior to that, weighing) the risks involved.

Jaded, Ph.D. said...

Matthew Pianalto,

Of course you are right about knowing the risks involved. When I first got into this game, I was told explicitly what the risks were and how to minimize them as much as possible. I was, and still am, responsible about it.

Though, as Hilzoy points out in her post, anyone with decent readership should expect and know that it is very possible to be outed.

But, she, of course, operates in a much wider sphere of influence than we do here, as her topics aren't just philosophy related and her readership is probably much vaster. So, the cases aren't particularly analogous.

Richard Y Chappell said...

STBJD - although this is implicit in your post, I think it's worth highlighting the broader consequentialist motivation for respecting pseudonymity. It isn't just Publius (or whoever) that's affected by the undermining of this norm.

Matthew Pianalto said...


Right. What's interesting here is that electing to be pseudonymous does--if it's generally wrong to out someone--set something like a "moral trap" for would-be outers. And those like Whelan who out for the wrong reasons thereby damage their own character/credibility. (But perhaps, in his view, one wrong is permissible to avert a greater wrong?)

In addition to taking all due care with one's own pseudonymity, it seems that one should also have (or at least it would be a good idea to have) a back-up plan (since we have to realize that some will reason as above). The thing I despise about much of the blogosphere (and other places where anonymous commenting occurs) is that there is so much nonsense, and nastiness, and I would be surprised if the owners of those comments would be willing to own up to them. I realize that in many cases I'd be wrong to be surprised, but still. Comments (in various places) about the murder of George Tiller are illustrative of the disturbing, and in some cases dangerous, side of online anonymity.

Jamie said...

I guess readers will have seen it by now, but
Whelan has apologized, and Publius has accepted the apology.

I wanted to chip in one thought, while we're still on the topic. I believe there is something to Brian Leiter's idea that anonymous comments tend to be more irresponsible. (I also think that on balance TPS has adopted the correct policy for its own constituency; I'm just agreeing with Leiter about the cost.)
But I don't see that the same considerations apply to an anonymous or pseudonymous blog. For example, Mr. Zero and S-t-b-J-D each have a reputation of sorts to maintain, credibility to build, maybe not quite to the extent that they'd have it if they blogged under their real names, but well enough. It plainly works, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but I notice that Mr. Zero has continued to do yeoman's work over at What's Wrong With the World. Good on you!