Monday, April 12, 2010

Anonymity and the Courage of One's Convictions

I think they have the right idea.

News websites like the New York Times and The Washington Post will soon be giving more prominence to comments that are not anonymous. It seems that much of the internet news industry is rethinking its comment policy and is going to revise it in that direction.

I have long felt that anonymity is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it allows people to say what they really think – and say it with all the passion they can muster – both negative and positive. That’s a good thing. Truth is always a good thing. But there is a downside.

For one thing it coarsens the debate. In fact it more than coarsens it. It may spur some to lie or mislead just to make their point. It allows people to say things that they would ordinarily never say if people knew who they were. They can use the worst profanity (not allowed on my heavily monitored blog) - using words and expressions that would make a sailor blush. Words and expressions they never use in public – least of all to their families. Words that if their children knew they used them in any way would be shocked – and dismayed.

The truth is that anonymity exposes the inner soul. It exposes the real personality of the individual and in many cases their lack of common decency. If anyone would ever find out the truth about these people they would become outcasts in many cases. Identification would restrain them from this kind of behavior.

Since people now have the ability to express themselves so freely - with complete impunity - many are motivated to do so. There are no consequences. To their friends, family, and peers they are fine well behaved individuals. But when they post anonymously on the internet they can be vile and disgusting bulldogs!

They are in fact ethically challenged Jekyll and Hydes. They have no respect for the dignity of others. They are often self-centered and self righteous. The purported values they often espouse are betrayed by the evil invective in their words. It like someone using foul language to express their opposition to profanity.

You cannot be a fully ethical human being if you have no respect for your fellow man. You cannot claim to be a fully observant Jew if your words are hurtful to other Jews - or non Jews - no matter how much you disagree with them. Words can be weapons – weapons of mass destruction when aimed at entire groups. The Gemarah compares those who use hurtful words against another - to murder! And yet anonymity encourages exactly this kind of behavior.

I see it here all the time. My venomous antagonists rarely identify themselves. They all use pseudonyms. And some of the attacks are truly vicious and virulent – spreading and encouraging other anonymous commenters to outdo each other. Their venom is directed at prominent people, the not so prominent, me, and anyone else they don’t like. There is no restraint. Anonymity guarantees they will not be identified - and there are no consequences.

Anonymous bloggers can get away with ‘murder’. They can lie. They can mislead. They can insult and embarrass in the extreme. And they can in general ‘act’ in ways that are truly disgusting for any human being. No one will know who they are - so why not? They ‘get it out of their system’ and it doesn’t cost them anything.

But that in my view is a road paved to hell. They may be getting away with it in this world. But they are not getting away with it in the next.

I am always strongly suspect of anonymous commenters on my blog. Those who use pseudonyms ought to be suspect. They have no checks and balances to guide them. They can ‘hit and run’. If they err there are no consequences. They simply change their pseudonym and start anew.

I refuse to play that game. This is why I have identified myself from the very start. This blog is about Emes and Emunah. With belief as an underpinning truth is my primary concern. I always seek it and I stand by what I say. I sign my name to it. If I have been convinced that I erred - I will submit to the truth and correct my error.

There are other websites that identify their writers. To name three which I frequent, there is R’ Gil’s Student’s Hirhurim, Cross-Currents, and R’ Yosef Bechhofer’s YGB. I know when I see something in writing there it is going to be truthfully and thoughtfully expressed with all the checks and balances that allow for a dignified post – whether I agree with them or not.

But there are quite a few others that are quite popular and are anonymous. I need not name those. Some are well known. Anyone who writes under a pseudonym has something to hide. They are to a certain extent embarrassed by what they say. They may be truthful. They may sound sincere. But their validity is undermined by their anonymity. The vileness of expression shows that making their point is more important than how they make it. Their ends justify their vile means. That is unscrupulous.

The truth is that if one is afraid to stand by his words - then he does not really have the courage of his convictions. He is too afraid of the consequences. That weakens their argument.

That said, I understand that there can be legitimate reasons for anonymity in some cases. Sometimes the truth can have serious negative ramifications. For example - whistle-blowers can be subject to tremendous harassment by their employers. Or worse!

Sometimes an honest opinion may cost someone their job. So there are exceptions. This is one reason I allow anonymous comments on my blog. But I am far more inclined to edit or delete them if they violate my rules. When real names are used I rarely delete or edit.

So I applaud the news oriented websites for altering their comments policy toward a more responsible approach. Perhaps I should move a bit more in that direction as well. One thing’s for sure. If people would use their real names - I could probably eliminate moderation.