Should using your real name be allowed?

[Stanley Fish has a column up that I assume includes typical hand-wringing about the place of anonymity on the internet — I haven’t actually read the article, because I find Stanley Fish’s writing in the Times to be really annoying. Nevertheless, I’m going to riff on the basic topic, citing Fish’s unread column only because it’s what brought this topic to mind.]

One often hears complaints about the use of anonymity on the internet, usually from people in the mainstream media who worry about people using anonymity irresponsibly, to say things they wouldn’t be willing to say in their own name. Abuse of anonymity, it is often assumed, is one of the things that make the internet such a toxic, uncivil place, and therefore allowing its use is highly questionable.

What I’d like to argue here is that allowing the use of real names in internet discourse is equally questionable if not moreso. To get at why this is true, let’s look at the difference in reactions to an anonymous commenter who makes a racist remark and the recent racist remarks of Hayley Barbour. In the case of the anonymous commenter, people will likely pile on, call him a racist, etc. In the case of Barbour, everyone notices that he’s an influential and powerful person and therefore assumes that he just slipped up and can’t possibly be a racist. In fact, everyone is afraid to come out and call Barbour a racist precisely because being a “racist” is regarded as an extremely bad thing, hence an insult, hence a personal attack — which then winds up rebounding on the accuser and making them look bad.

Similar dynamics abound. For instance, the kinds of things John Yoo advocated are absolutely dispicable and inhuman — but when you then think of John Yoo as a person, who presumably has his own needs and desires and loves his family, etc., suddenly appelations like “war criminal” and “worthy of death” seem somehow disproportionate.

Why should people engaged in public debate be able to abuse their status as particular human beings like this? It’s precisely these spurious appeals to our shared humanity that keep us from having a viable public sphere. The solution is precisely to disallow the use of real names and instead require consistent pseudonyms, so that all names in the public sphere of the internet are the names of discourses rather than human beings. If someone insists on using their real name, let it be treated as a pseudonym as well.

26 thoughts on “Should using your real name be allowed?

  1. In fact, there are plenty of people who have no problem calling Barbour and Yoo out in internet discussion. A quick google search for “Hayler Barbour racist” and “John Yoo war criminal” reveals as much. What’s got you bothered, I imagine, is an disappointed overestimation of the current potential of internet discourse. That is, those (like you) who will call out these people still can’t manage to run them out of their office or influence.

  2. See, because the point of this post was to push back against the “official” media pundits’ attempt to claim that the internet sucks due to their lack of proper decorum, enabled by anonymity, etc…

  3. That makes sense. The media was only mentioned in your first sentence as a group that had an opinion about the internet, so I didn’t realize that the “media” carried over to those doing (or not doing) the discourse in later paragraphs. In light of your clarifications, my comment is more or less beside the point.

    In my defense, it isn’t crystal clear… when you say people will likely pile on, call him a racist, etc. in the case of an anonymity, and in the case of Barbour that everyone […] assumes that he just slipped up and can’t possibly be a racist, it sounds like “people” and “everyone” are the same subjects of discourse, and that the discourse in both cases is that of pretty much any sort of internet public.

  4. The lack of proper decorum is sad. We all know that only people blogging under their own names are allowed to criticize others since apparently they put themselves out there open for return criticisms and thus do not take “pot shots” at the legitimately named bloggers.

  5. Adam, I think you are in some sort of weird cocoon, because your point here doesn’t seem to correspond to reality as I experience it in any meaningful way. Either that or I’m in a cocoon of people who have no problem calling named people racists.

  6. To be fair, I lived in Berkeley for six years, and you can’t walk 20 feet without seeing a “John Yoo, War Criminal Poster” so the scenario in which I’m the one in the cocoon may in fact obtain. You may want to consider moving to California, however.

  7. Hill, As indicated in my comments to Evan, I didn’t mean that literally no one will call out John Yoo — I meant that in the mainstream media discussion, characterized (according to people like Fish) by the use of real names and therefore civility and reason, such positions are marginal at best.

  8. It’s not clear to me why you would have expected anything more from “the mainstream media” given that this one of an essentially infinite list of things they do poorly. That’s what led to my initial assumption that you were critiquing public discourse at large.

  9. “I totally left myself open by not explicitly stating that I realized that not literally everyone on earth had refrained from calling Barbour a racist and Yoo a war criminal.”

    I knew you couldn’t go too long leaving it at a straightforward comment like “my post was unclear to the point of obscuring my intentions.”

  10. The charge of racism or war crimes really is about status and it would be interesting to find a full sociological study on the topic (I’m sure such studies exist).

    What is absolutely sickening to me is that John Yoo, although surrounded by “Yoo = war criminal” posters still maintains his highly respected status. Even worse is Jay Bybee who, beyond belief, is a sitting judge!

    Those who call them criminals are, by the act of naming them such, demoted in status within our society. And those who are occupying the proper roles to actually do something about it, like Eric Holder, choose to do nothing, look the other way, look forward not backward.

    For me this raises a number of interesting and infuriating questions about the legal system. What would happen if, for example, a bounty hunter were to arrest Jay Bybee, transport him to Spain or The Hague, and drop him off? This is surely illegal (bounty hunters can only work within the state they are licensed in and besides the US I think there is only one other country that uses bounty hunters, a product of the wild west).

    What Wikileaks is to the media we need an “X” to the judicial system or police force. A Shanti Sena?

  11. Well, right… but that’s why no one said you were talking about all of humanity or any sort of rigorous rule against ever calling a spade a spade.

    But yes, I do quite like nuance.

  12. What is absolutely sickening to me is that John Yoo, although surrounded by “Yoo = war criminal” posters still maintains his highly respected status.

    This was more my original point, for what it’s worth.

  13. “What Wikileaks is to the media we need an “X” to the judicial system or police force. A Shanti Sena?”

    Maybe the Ismaili “assassins” give us a good example…


    There is liking nuance and then there is liking nuance to the point that what you really like is obscurantism.

  14. That does sound like an interesting read. I’m currently reading a book about the Ismaili messianic experience at Alamût by Christian Jambet. I realize that revolutionary violence is abhorrent to most people, but what I found interesting about the self-defence of the Ismaili was their focus against powers rather than peoples.

Comments are closed.