The United States, as we know it today, was born in an anonymous debate.
On September 27, 1787, an anonymous writer using the pen-name “Cato” wrote an essay for the New York press, criticising the proposed US constitution, which was then awaiting ratification by the states. Cautioning against an overly-powerful executive and the establishment of a standing army, the essay soon triggered a response from “Publius,” another pseudonymous author, who argued in favour of the new constitution. By then a third pesudonymous critic, “Brutus,” had also entered the debate.
Behind the pseudonyms swirling around the media were some of the greatest minds of the day: George Clinton, Robert Yates, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. The full collection of their essays are now known as the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers and their discussion captured the attention of American society. Ultimately, it led to the drafting of the Bill of Rights.
Historians still disagree on why so many enlightenment-era intellectuals wrote under nom de plumes. For some, it was to escape state persecution. Voltaire, whose real identity was known, was imprisoned several times by the French government for his sharp critiques of the aristocracy.
For the German philosopher Fichte, anonymity meant that arguments and ideas would be judged on merit, not on the character or reputation of their authors.” Harsh attacks on those who think differently serve only those who cannot rely on the strength of their reason,” wrote Fichte. Anonymous commenters on reddit and 4chan would doubtless agree.
The federalists had a more mundane concern. Given the strength of feeling surrounding the debate, they were concerned that revealing their identities would detrimentally affect their employment. More than two hundred years later, with figures as talented as Brendan Eich losing their jobs at the hands of the politically intolerant, it’s a motivation that remains eminently understandable.
The Progressive Fear of Anonymity
Despite its importance to the evolution of liberal societies, or perhaps because of it, anonymity is intensely disliked by today’s trendy, progressive commentariat. Lance Ulanoff, editor-at-large of Mashable recently argued that anonymity should be abolished across the entire internet. SJW darling Wil Wheaton demanded the same for online videogames. Feminist academic Danielle Citron wants web companies to remove the “privilege” of anonymity at will.
Even I once wrote a column along these lines before coming to my senses and realising the value of anonymous and pseudonymous debate online.
Centres of anonymous culture, such as reddit, 8chan and 4chan, are the subject of particularly fearful narratives. 4chan is described as the “cesspool of the internet,” 8chan is a “troll forum,” and Reddit is a “worse black hole of violent racism than Stormfront.”
The commentary isn’t just detached criticism. Many of the writers engage in horrified, hyperbolic rhetoric, presenting anonymous commenters as dangerous evildoers in need of punishment. Ulanoff branded anonymous critics of former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao “sub-human cowards” who “spew hate,” and urged Reddit to record their personal addresses. Adding real-world accountability to Reddit, according to Ulanoff, is the only way to stop its “disgusting, hateful, and racist content.”
But Pao’s critics weren’t racist. They were concerned with free speech, and resented the former CEO for watering down the site’s previous commitment to that ideal. Ulanoff’s use of the word “racist” typifies the progressive approach to discourse: argument via scarlet letters, shaming, and “isms” instead of robust debate.
With influential columnists throwing around career-ruining allegations so casually, it’s little wonder that Redditors and 4chan users are so wary of abandoning their anonymity.
Freedom from Consequences
They are right to be afraid. A constant refrain from progressive critics of anonymity is the need to impose severe social and economic penalties on unwelcome speech. Wil Wheaton grumbled that anonymity means people are “unaccountable for their words and deeds.”
Daily Beast contributor and occasional cupid Arthur Chu remarked that if anonymity had become a “useful tool for eliminating social consequences,” then it was a “bug” that ought to be fixed. It’s an argument closely related to another progressive meme: “Free speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences.”
Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find out exactly what kind of consequences they want. Last year, both Chu and Wheaton applauded the defenestration of Brendan Eich, the short-lived CEO of the Mozilla Foundation who was forced to resign over his 2008 donation to a campaign against gay marriage.
“We’ve heard a lot recently about what constitutes ‘going too far’ when it comes to holding people accountable for their offensive beliefs,” Chu wrote derisively. “A lot of stuff about ‘freedom of speech,’ a lot of stuff about ‘tolerance,’ a lot of stuff about ‘political correctness run amok.'”
Not all left-leaning columnists were pleased. At Slate, William Saletan wrote that Eich’s persecutors were the “new moral majority” who had “forgotten what liberalism is.” At The Atlantic, a long-time campaigner for gay marriage wrote that the hounding of Eich “violated liberal values” and would have a “chilling effect on political discourse.” Importantly, neither of these writers are cheerleaders for the end of anonymity. Chu and Wheaton are.
Progressives are serious about making political opponents fear for their economic livelihoods. In December 2014, the pseudonymous artist behind “Plebcomics,” a popular series of comics mocking extreme “social justice warriors,” was outed by an activist claiming to represent “oppressed and marginalised groups.” The artist’s employer was deluged with emails urging them to fire her, and she was briefly forced to resign. Only a last-minute counter-campaign by Plebcomics
There’s no “punching up” to be found here. Progressives would like everyone from tech CEOs to webcomic artists to be afraid of the social and financial blowback of the wrong sort of speech. Little wonder that anonymity, used by dissidents as a shield against modern witch-hunts, has become a target.
Give a Man a Mask
The setting may not be the same, but the motivations of the federalists and the anonymous dissidents of today are not so different. Then, just as now, some political issues were considered too personally and professionally dangerous to discuss publicly. Despite the best efforts of liberal pluralists, anonymity‘s enduring popularity is a sign that no matter the era, there will always be a contingent of society who seek to punish others for their opinions.
Many of the hand-wringing articles about “anonymous trolls” cite the established theory of online disinhibition, which describes the abandonment of inhibitions and restrictions on speech that occurs when people feel free to speak without consequence. According to critics, this is the cause of online nastiness.
But all the theory really shows is that given the chance, people will question and even violate many of the social conventions and language codes that govern face-to-face interactions. Unless it is argued that all of today’s social norms are infallible, it’s hard to make the case that this is a bad thing. After all, the heresies of one generation often become the orthodoxies of the next.
Ordinary people are attracted to anonymity because it gives them a space to discuss, collaborate, and create away from the prying eyes of cultural elites, safe-spacers and puritans. People feel freer to discuss controversial topics, crack controversial jokes and craft controversial memes when they are confident a Gawker blogger isn’t looking over their shoulder, threatening to publicly shame them, as happened to Justine Sacco.
For the progressive cultural elites who want disagreement to have harsh consequences, the anonymous web is a terrifying place. Like the salons of revolutionary-era France, who knows what will emerge from them?