Charity and Anonymity

Brian Leiter has recently posted a complaint about the APA Code of Conduct’s recommendations urging caution regarding online anonymity. He targets this blog in particular for criticism (in addition to another blog I have not seen and thus leave aside here in all that follows). He writes:

‘In what possible sense is anonymity “sometimes unavoidable”?  One can either post using one’s name or not.  And what constitutes “judicious” usage of anonymity?   Surely, for example, a blog like Feminist Philosophers with many pseudonymous posters operating for years under their pseudonyms–e.g., “Philodaria,” “Monkey,” “Magical Ersatz,” “Lady Day,” “Prof Manners”–are not using anonymity “judiciously”:  they are using it to shield themselves from being accountable for what they write.  And such anonymity is clearly avoidable, as others (for example, the philosophers Anne Jacobson and Jennifer Saul) post under their own names at the very same blog…. And for those who take the APA Code of Conduct seriously–maybe at least its drafters (about whom more soon) if no one else–do they not have an obligation now to “out” these philosophers using anonymity unjudiciously, and thus in “violation” of the Code?’

I want to take this opportunity to address a few issues attached to the use of anonymity in both blogging and in comments, speaking only for myself and not for the bloggers here as a whole of course.

I wish the profession and its blog culture in particular could be more humane and charitable. The objection raised above seems to assume the worst about those of us here who write under pseudonyms. I can’t speak for others, but since I am picked out as one of the objectionable cases, here are a few of the considerations. Some forms of blog commentary may well (and indeed demonstrably do) generate more heat from the wilds of the internet. Blogging can invite harassment of various sorts, can render one a target of unfair or ugly personal attack, and so forth (something I think Brian Leiter has himself complained of). So if the writers here want to protect themselves from this risk, why begrudge them? At the very least, the calculation here does not obviously fall to one side decisively, such that peers in the profession knowing one’s identity is so important that it trumps the possibility of utterly unconnected (and far more “unaccountable”) strangers finding one’s email address and subjecting one to harassment. Before assuming that those who write pseudonymously do so to escape accountability, it may be worth at least considering what other reasons for caution exist.

Even if online harassment from the internet’s underbelly weren’t an issue, I also wonder what exactly we mean by “accountability” in the context of blogging anonymity. There are of course uses of anonymity that appear rather transparently designed to provide the writer a freedom to assail others unfairly, intemperately, or even with great venom – to be, in other words, aggressive and cruel toward others in blameworthy ways anonymity evades. I take it that this sort of thing is what motivated the APA to issue its caution.

But I guess in the case of this blog and the consistent pseudonymous identities we use, I’m less sure what exactly accountability means in practice. Are there sanctions – social, professional, or otherwise – that would be brought to bear if only our identities were known? I’m honestly uncertain about what’s intended here, about what it is my professional colleagues need to know about me or “do” about me with regard to what I’ve written pseudonymously. I gather that Prof. Leiter thinks I have “earned” some sort of treatment, critique, or response that I presently escape but I don’t know what it is.

Since Prof Leiter’s post suggests others should “out” those of us posting anonymously, I’ll just cut to the chase: I’ve already given my identity away in comments or posts multiple times but if you didn’t see it, I’m Amy Olberding. I don’t know what attaching my name accomplishes, but I suppose I will find out. Maybe I’ll come in for awful, abusive harassment from random, hostile passersby to the blog. I really hope not.  But I don’t have trouble owning what I’ve said here, though I also hope that readers are charitable in recognizing that not all blog posts represent fixed views but are explorations inviting discussion and indeed correction.

So what does all this add up to? I suppose not much, except to say that I wish the profession as a whole enjoyed more interpersonal charity, a willingness to grant others latitude in various ways. This might mean assuming they have good reasons for some of what they do. It might mean realizing that people are complicated, their actions rarely reducible to singular nefarious motives.  If we were more charitable, I think we’d have more participants in various professional discussions and less perceived need for people to participate under cover of anonymity.  In other words, if one goal is to reduce anonymity in professional philosophy blog discussion, outing people might be less effective than generosity and charity in dialogue.  Maybe that’s where the APA Code is onto something.

Not incidentally, if we were more charitable, perhaps fewer of us would feel that we have to perform philosophy and inquiry from a defensive crouch, ever ready to receive pugilistic attack. It’s a cramped way to live intellectually and some of the most enlivening ideas and discussions include much that is assailable. I rue that we lose all of that fine assailable stuff we could really enjoy if only our discourse and conversational practices didn’t have us ever cramped to make smaller targets for incoming attack. Greater charity might mean we get to see a lot more interesting stuff, whether on blogs or in more formal work. That it would also invite more to attach their names to what they write in discussions would be a good too, but not principally or only because we can then hold them to account, but because we might all feel a little more human in getting to be ourselves and know each other.

23 thoughts on “Charity and Anonymity

  1. Really well said. I agree with all of this. And though it’s pretty public knowledge, I’ll go ahead and confirm to anyone that doesn’t know: I’m Elizabeth Barnes.

  2. You seem to have missed the point of the post. You should address this to the APA Committee responsible for declaring regular anonymous blogging inappropriate conduct for a professional philosopher.

  3. There are very good reasons that some of those who blog here do not use their names. Some are in junior or otherwise vulnerable positions. Frankly, we are also often singled out for some pretty awful attacks. If people want to out themselves, that’s fine. But absolutely nobody should feel any pressure to do so.

  4. Jenny, yes, agreed! I hope my post didn’t suggest anyone else should feel compelled. I likewise hope no one takes up Prof. Leiter’s odd invitation to “out” people – exactly because it may be opening someone up to awful attack.

  5. Yes, agreed. Fwiw, since I was outed elsewhere I’ve received some pretty nasty and creepy anonymous messages, and I completely respect my colleagues’ preferences not to go through that. To be honest, I participate much less on this blog as a result.

  6. But the excerpt above doesn’t suggest that Brian Leiter invited readers to out anyone. His seems to amount to a provocative biconditional: If and only if one takes seriously the new Code, then one would have this obligation to ‘out’ a blogger. Since the excerpt seems to occur in a context in which he is saying that he does not take the Code seriously, then the implication of the above is that he does not believe the obligation obtains. So no recommendation to out bloggers seems to have occurred.

    I’m more interested in the reasons for anonymity when playing on the Internet highway, which you (and Elizabeth Barnes and Jenny Saul, with others, in past posts) state so well. That anonymity is advisable most of the time that one exposes oneself to harassment seems to me prima facie obvious.

  7. “Surely, for example, a blog like Feminist Philosophers with many pseudonymous posters operating for years under their pseudonyms–e.g., “Philodaria,” “Monkey,” “Magical Ersatz,” “Lady Day,” “Prof Manners”–are not using anonymity “judiciously”: they are using it to shield themselves from being accountable for what they write.”

    While it’s clear that Prof. Leiter’s primary target was APA code of conduct and its authors, it seems a bit difficult not to read the above passage as direct criticism of the pseudonymity being used on this blog, and I take it that this issue was Prof. Manner’s primary focus. So I don’t really think she’s misinterpreted anything. (And while Prof. Leiter’s invitation to ‘out’ is tongue-in-cheek, it has to be read in the context of his criticism of pseudonymity on this blog and in the context of the fact that bloggers here have in fact been outed – including, very publicly, by Prof. Leiter himself – and subjected to pretty grim harassment as a result, which seems to be what Prof. Manners is getting at.)

  8. Hi, Kate and Brian, I don’t think I did miss the point though perhaps my response is too oblique. I see that this can all pass for a “humorous” skewer of the APA Code along the lines of: If they believe this, then they should have at it and out folks! But humor doesn’t preclude the delivery of indirect criticism (Unter dem Spass liegt Ernst) or backhanded swipes at collateral targets. What, exactly, does citing various FP bloggers for disapprobation add to the discussion of the APA Code? What does challenging people to out us add? I don’t see what it substantively adds if indeed the APA is the (only) target of critique. Perhaps you could explain what exactly these examples of particular pseudonymous bloggers are meant to illuminate – they show… what? they help the critique by…. what?

  9. I’m also not sure why we should think the biconditional is true, setting everything else aside. There are a plethora of norms, moral, professional, and otherwise, folks violate all the time. Unless one presupposes that there is an additional norm — out those who do not abide by norms they ought to abide by — I have no idea why it follows that if you take the code seriously, you should out those who do not abide by it.

  10. I note also that even if one ‘takes the Code seriously’, and even if the Code implies that one ought not to do the kind of anonymous blogging that is done here,* this by no means implies that anybody should be outing anybody. The APA Code of Conduct offers prescriptions for how philosophers ought to behave; it does not instruct philosophers to report violations to a central governing authority or to the world at large.

    For example, I have not seen particular controversy about the APA’s suggestion that instructors should “treat students with dignity, never intentionally embarrassing or belittling them”. Endorsement of the Code of conduct does not imply that, if I were to observe a colleague violating this norm, I should ‘out’ them as disrespectful instructors to the world at large. This would, in many circumstances, be an undue violation of privacy.

    So I agree with magicalersatz and Prof Manners. Leiter’s invocation of the prospect of outing contributors here is inappropriate.

    * For the record, I do not at all agree with this assumption.

  11. What is this guy’s (Leiter’s) problem? People (including me) contribute money anonymously; people post anonymously. Why shouldn’t we contribute to worthy causes, material or intellectual, anonymously if we please? Anonymity makes sense if we’re vulnerable, i.e. if we’re untenured. I’m however am tenured so I can shoot my mouth off spouting my contrarian views whenever and wherever I jolly well please. So, hello, I am HARRIET BABER, at the University of San Diego, baber@sandiego.edu and cell phone number available at request. I’m not afraid of God or man because I have tenure: that’s what it’s for.
    [Edited a little bit. Sorry, hbaber! AO]

  12. I’m in broad agreement with what’s been said above.

    Also:

    “In what possible sense is anonymity “sometimes unavoidable”? One can either post using one’s name or not.”

    There are loads of cases in which people use names that aren’t their dotted-line names without intending anonymity. Just from amongst my friends, one is better known to the world at large by a stage name, one has a magnificently unpronouncable East Asian name and goes under an English name day-to-day, and one is trans and currently has quite a wibbly-wobbly identity.

    I don’t use ‘The Lambton Worm’ intending to hide my identity – while my real name isn’t quite ‘John Smith’, it comes pretty close to that exemplar of nondescriptness. I’m more or less impossible to google. There are multiple people, including multiple philosophers higher in the ranks of the academy, who share the name and who are much easier to connect with that name than I am. But to the best of my knowledge, there’s only one Lambton Worm; I use it as my settled handle on all of the blogs I comment on, and I’m happy to be accountable here for what I say elsewhere. Indeed, I’m pretty sure that if I posted as ‘John Smith’ I’d have a less identifiable or cohesive internet identity, and be less generally accountable for my commenting activity. So here’s at least one case in which to “shield myself from being accountable for what I write” is neither the intention nor the effect of using the pseudonym. (I’d even argue that ‘Lambton’ is literally less anonymous than ‘John Smith’.)

    My trans friend is maybe a more interesting case than me, though. I’m at least a bit inclined to think that having an unambiguous, unproblematic public identity with a single name attached to it is at least a bit of a luck/privilege thing, and so we shoudln’t assume in making up our moral rules that everyone can have one; even aside from concerns about being able to display that identity without fear.

    Yours,
    Lambton

  13. Thank you for your characteristically excellent post, Prof Manners. I too wish the profession could be more humane and charitable. But I wonder if it already is (?). Here’s my thought: Perhaps Brian Leiter represents a *much* smaller percentage of the profession than he thinks he does. For example, perhaps he only represents a handful of people. I say this because I’ve long seen his influence on the profession as unapologetically destructive (for reasons well-captured by your post), and I have a hard time finding anyone who doesn’t share the broad outlines of my view.

    Of course, there *is* a narrative about the profession in which Brian’s conduct is not widely seen as destructive. But here’s the thing: that narrative has been promulgated primarily (perhaps even exclusively) by Brian.

    Maybe it just isn’t true (?).

  14. In reply to Professor Ichikawa’s comments about the putative duty to “out” violators of the Code:

    You are correct that the APA code does not specify this as a professional obligation, but I wonder if that’s in part due to the fact that it is reasonable to assume that it is a duty of any profession. Insofar as professions are self-governing, one might reasonably consider that it is a duty of any member of the profession to hold others accountable for respecting the profession-specific norms–if a particular member of the profession fails to hold him- or herself accountable, then others members have a duty to seek to hold that member accountable.

    You are also correct that a duty such as this need not be read as involving an effort to out one who violates any specific part of the code to the world at large. But then the issue of online anonymity must be viewed as peculiar. If one grants that there is a duty to hold other members of the profession accountable for violations of the professional code–if we each have a duty to ensure that every member of the profession complies with the rules of the code–then we should develop an understanding of what this requires in particular in the case of one who apparently violates the code’s cautioning against online anonymity (i.e., its rule against injudicious use of online anonymity). What should one do?

    One possibility is that we trust the judgment of those who post anonymously or pseudonymously. I’d like to think that trusting the judgment of professionals is part of the grounds for allowing professions to be self-governing. In that case, though, the provision about online anonymity in the APA code is especially obnoxious. Shouldn’t the professional association trust us to behave professionally?

    I don’t know Leiter at all, but I’m inclined to read him charitably in this case and suggest that something like the above is what he intends to express.

  15. Unknown Philosopher, I think that all makes sense as an abstract accounting, but the APA Code emerges from particular circumstances, not least of which are various blogs or sites that employ anonymity while rather brutally assailing particular philosophers by name. I.e., the worry evinced in the Code answers to actual events, people, and problems within the profession. Likewise, my complaint about Prof Leiter’s post does not emerge in a vacuum but in this context, as well as in his having outed one of our bloggers (with the result that she suffered considerable online harassment) and the wider phenomenon of online harassment (see: https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2014/12/25/pseudonyms/ ).

    Perhaps one way to consider the issue in relation to Prof Leiter’s original post is this: Would it be a bizarre abuse of his claims for someone to feel inspired by them to out an FP blogger? Does what he says imply he would be *disappointed* or *disapprove* if someone did so? Such a one could even serve to amplify the complaint Prof Leiter makes against the Code by so acting, a kind of “See, look what this Code entails!” That such a gesture could then be defended as a demonstration of the purported absurdity of the Code interests me far less than the concern that we inhabit a profession in which some would delight in such a form of “critique.” I remain puzzled by how not only permissible but seemingly *enjoyable* (to some) it has become to issue casual insult, such that deriding bloggers seeking to “evade accountability” is treated as just an along-the-way cavalier remark, as if this and a sardonic invitation to out them is something we can blow right by in favor of abstracting out some actual argument. Part of the point of my own post here is just to despair of such “delights” and hope against their continuation or extension into worse, such as outing people here.

  16. Unknown Philosopher, I’m inclined to think we should read the APA Code more charitably than to think it carries an implicit norm that we have a duty to hold violators of the norms to account and that in the case of online anonymity, that will involve outing folks to the world. (It is reasonable to assume, for example, that it is a professional obligation for members of any profession not to sexually harass their colleagues — but that doesn’t go without saying in this code, so why would we think this other norm, which seems to me even less obvious, would?).

  17. I think it would be helpful to distinguish anonymity from pseudonymity here (and in the APA code’s rather gnomic remark). There is a pretty substantial difference between participating in the philosophy blogosphere with a single identity not linked to your real-world name, and just participating as “anonymous”. The latter really is problematic (which isn’t to say that there aren’t sometimes reasons to do it). The former strikes me as largely harmless – I guess it’s slightly less helpful than using your real name, but that could be easily outweighed by harassment issues and the like – as I assume is the case for FP bloggers.

  18. David Wallace, agreed. But I don’t think the conflation of pseudonymity and anonymity is a problem of the APA Code, which only references the latter. I don’t know, but presume that the Code’s usage of “anonymity” is deliberate and intended to mean just that. It is Prof Leiter who has conflated anonymity with pseudonymity with his suggestion that bloggers here are violating the Code by using pseudonyms and that exposure of us would follow the Code. The Code itself does not suggest such an expansive reading.

  19. To be honest I think “anonymity”, absent other context, covers both anonymity in the narrow sense and pseudonymy; the anonymity/pseudonymy distinction is a term of art which I think I only learned a few months ago, and most of the comments on this thread use “anonymity” in that broader sense. If the APA code actually intends anonymity in the narrow sense it should probably clarify that: replacing “anonymity” with “anonymity (to be distinguished from stable pseudonymy)” would do it.

  20. David Wallace, I confess to some impatience with this. Of course the discussion here is running the two together. The discussion is about claims, Prof Leiter’s, that do so. Pseudonymous bloggers are only a focus in this conversation because Prof Leiter made them so. So operating as if this ought dictate the APA’s approach assumes much, principally that any Code they produce must be designed to withstand the least charitable, most wildly expansive reading.

    This is exactly the sort the thing I am referencing in saying that the profession’s conversational norms are suffocating and cramped, requiring that those who wish not to be uncharitably assailed choose between silence and being derided for incompetence because they have not closed off every possible ungenerous interpretation. I’m sure the Code could be modified in various ways and I’m equally sure that discussion of any ambiguities it contains can be useful. The issue here is what sort of conversational process is likely to yield better and my contention is that whatever that might be, it is not *this*.

    At risk of repeating myself, if we must opt for the most charitable representation of Prof Leiter’s remarks, laboriously extracting a legitimate objection from the free fire at myriad others, why is this charity so woefully absent with respect to the APA Code’s crafters? True, he’s not trying to craft a professional code but merely blogging, but given that one of these activities is substantively, considerably, dramatically harder than the other, why not direct our charity toward those doing the harder work? I apologize for my impatience, but I do think the discrepancy here in where we afford charity is just remarkable. There is nothing at all inherent in the nature of critique that requires the discourse practices in evidence here.

  21. All I can say is that on first reading I read the APA statement as meaning “anonymous” in the broad sense, and so if that’s not what’s intended then it’s worth clarifying. I suppose I concede the possibility that very few people share my reading, but even so the clarification is harmless. I’m unconvinced that a principle of charity is the right norm for interpreting a proposed code of conduct. I didn’t comment either way on Brian Leiter’s views; I’m engaging only with the first-order question of anonymity in blogging and the APA take on it. I took the scope of your post, and hence of on-topic discussion of that post, to include that first-order question as well as the second-order question of Brian Leiter’s comments on the APA policy and on FP (the latter conversation is not one I’m interested in participating in). If I was wrong and hence off-topic, apologies.

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