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.