Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Revisiting the silly complaint against anonymous bloggers

Four decades ago Rabbi Norman Lamm wrote that he didn't respect anonymous complaints. Now thanks to a recent post on a Hirhuirim, many of you are trying to take those remarks from another era and apply them to blogging. In the post I share below Eliyahu Fink explains why that's a mistake. To his comments, I'll only add that I was deeply disappointed to see something so foolish coming from Rabbi Lamm's pen.

It may be true that the author of an anonymous letter or blog post is a coward but that's neither here nor there. The character of the writer has no bearing on the strength of his arguments. Something true remains true even if it was said by an invertebrate, and a moronic statement is a moronic statement even if the author of the statement provides us with his name, address and social security number.

Truth is, I'd like it better if everyone used pseudonyms. [Damn you Zuckerberg!] It seems to me that the only reason to use your real name on an Internet forum is to advance your vanity or to permit your arguments to rest on your reputation rather than your ideas. Without the burden of your identity, you're free to say what you really think. To speak your mind. To make vigorous arguments. Yes, sometimes the result is rudeness, but we're all grownups here. Moreover, if you're anonymous yourself the slings and arrows don't hurt nearly as much. Best of all, if you're anonymous none of the nastiness can follow you into the real world where it might do some real harm.

Several people have excerpted from the excerpt of R' Lamm's thoughts on anonymity published on R' Gil Student's Torah Musings. The gist of the quote is that R' Lamm doesn't pay attention to anonymous letters because they are written by cowards. People who don't stand behind their thoughts with their names are, in his words, pathetic and have the value of a check (what's that?) signed anonymously.
A few things:
There is a category of anonymity that R' Lamm does not mention. This is the category of the person who will suffer disproportionate consequences for their opinions. Worse, their families who didn't even say the thing that the anonymous person said will also be punished. I think that this kind of anonymity is unfortunate, but completely excusable. We can't expect every person to be willing to accept the ridiculous social consequences of having a different opinion.
It's a greater indictment of the society that discourages opinions and independent thinking than it is of the anonymous person.
Further, ideas in public forums are different than personal criticisms mailed in a letter. That's what R' Lamm was talking about. Ideas can stand on their own.
Also, there is a different kind of anonymity that is pseudonymous. That is, there is a name that a particular person who is unknown uses all the time. In this sense, the person is not really anonymous because the pseudonym is an independent identity that does stand behind its ideas. There is a great distinction between a consistent use of a pseudonym such that the pseudonym is known and a person who is completely anonymous and there is no credibility attached to the person's anonymous identity.
Finally, almost all the commenters on Torah Musings are pseudonymous or anonymous. Maybe Torah Musings should institute a commenting system that requires verification and real names. Oh, right, people would be quite reluctant to voice opinions if they were attached to their opinions because of the social consequences attached to opinions. So what was the point of posting this?

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