In my recent article for The Border House I took on a number of the arguments made by a few starry eyed technophiles in favour of ending the practise of online anonymity. This is a significant issue for me that, in its many facets, presents me with the ultimate intersectional landscape on which to grow my ideas about interpersonal politics. In other words, it is very easy to talk about sex, race, power, class, and a range of issues surrounding both individual and group behaviour (group psychology and sociology), identity, and just plain old techno-geekery. It touches on a myriad of issues that are important to me.
What follows is a refinement of what I wrote for The Border House and an expansion of it.
I.- Setting Information Free(?)
It is very much worth mentioning that the central idea behind the anti-anonymity advocate’s vision is the firm belief that the death of anonymity will allow information to flow more freely. The reality, however, is that the end of anonymity means a significant lever of personal control will be wrenched away.
To explain what I mean by this I should go into greater detail about the nature of the information being hotly debated at the moment. Invariably the two pieces of information most prized by the Zuckerbergs and their ideological fellow travellers are, in order of importance: legal names and recent, tasteful photographs. This is what I’ve long referred to as “driver’s licence info” and it is information of a very particular and discrete (if not discreet) type. Driver’s licence information actually has very little to do with your personality and who you are as a person. Such information can, in the case of some, affirm who they are (such as in the case of us trans folk) but even that is only the result of the primacy placed on this otherwise relatively un-telling data.
The reason it is so vitally important, the reason it is fought over like the bloodied scrap of earth it is, is because people in power have made that information a matter of life and death.
A name is what you decide to call yourself, and secondarily what others agree to call you. The ‘legal’ codification of it was merely a forerunner to the 20th century invention of serial numbers which are used to ‘identify’ us ever more finely as the owner of a legally sanctioned identity. Legal names are the foundation of this particular form of identification and are the essence of it. Their legality arises from governmental sanction, but it says nothing immediately genuine about who you are. The reason my own name speaks so powerfully to me is because I chose it. I sought to have it legally recognised because in our society where legal names are gold standards and wherein we must all have one, I felt the most self-empowering thing I could do would be to choose it. So indeed I have and my name is now recognised at various levels of officialdom.
But it was no less mine and no less true to me when it lacked legal recognition. It was my name from the moment I chose it in the company of a dear friend as I tepidly set out to claim a name as my own for the first time in my life. If anything my old legal name actually signal-jammed a good deal of truth that may have eminated from me years sooner, and equally blocked a lot that I might have otherwise taught myself. Obviously my old name was not solely responsible for this– a welter of other social conditions played their parts– but it had a starring role to play. We can discuss and debate the particulars but the fundaments of the matter are these:
My old legal name hid far more than it revealed, hindered more than it helped, and stifled far more than it liberated.
In other words it was actually an impediment to the free flow of information for it to be known and in the public record. It was an obstacle to me forging my own identity, right up to the multiple legal rigamaroles I had to endure in order to change it publicly.
Forcing me into a particular ‘legal identity’ closed doors, it did not open them. Who, precisely, is Mark Zuckerberg to adjudicate on which name is a person’s true name? These legal names are important, yes, but only for the same reason that, say, the institution of marriage is important: so many unjust privileges are bound up in it that we cannot help but pay close attention to its use. For precisely that same reason control of that information must remain in the hands of those with the least power. More broadly, it should remain in the hands of those who are the rightful adjudicators of such information: the people themselves.
II.- The Keys of Truth and Who Holds Them
The crux of this battle is, in essence, ‘who decides?’ Zuckerberg and his kind suggest that it is the powerful who should, in Platonic beneficence, decide. This is again a very basic question of the powerless versus the powerful.
For Zuckerberg, an end to anonymity would mean a world that was, not too coincidentally, like Facebook. Leaving aside the rather obvious bias that incurs in thinking this an ideal way to run the world, there is also the fact that it presumes much about anonymity that simply isn’t true.
It is a truism that anonymity online leads to nasty behaviour that one might be more circumspect about otherwise. But although this idea is certainly true to a point, it neglects something very fundamental: there is nothing about the ways in which people online are cruel to each other that is inherent to the space. Racism, sexism and every other form of prejudice, indeed, predate widespread use of the Internet. In some cases by millennia. The fault, dear reader, lies not with the websites but with ourselves.
The other failed assumption about anonymity is that it is only ever used for nefarious purposes. While it is true that there are people who behaved boorishly that might not have but for a web handle, it is equally true that there are many people online whose powerful writing and art would not be available to the world without the gift that anonymity provides. We return to the issue of how the death of anonymity is actually an information jammer rather than a signal booster. Countless survivors, PWD, and a variety of other folks would not be able to share the wealth of information they have to give without the ability to hide their driver’s licence info.
And it is here that we return to the difference between driver’s licence information and the information anonymous people often provide.
III.- Names, Faces, and Self
If I knew the name and face of any of several bloggers or commentors I’ve read who spoke eloquently and movingly about sexual assault, say, I would know very little about them that was useful and material to knowing who they were as human beings. I would know very little about what they would have to add to store of human knowledge, I would know nothing of their experience. All of the above are precious, the kinds of irrationally powerful, emotional, affecting pieces of knowledge and wisdom that help to add more definition to the tapestry of humanity.
A legal name and a face do nothing of a kind.
They are as bland and even lifeless as the ID cards they are so often printed on. My legal name only has soul because it is a name I personally choose to attach to a constellation of things about myself that I have forged. My activism, my work, my love, my commitment, my speeches, my writing. My legal name is like a desktop shortcut to all of the foregoing, and in this lies its value.
Exposed naked in absentia of all of that, however, it tells you nothing about me that is vital to my spirit. What it does do is enable to you stalk me. It gives you a headstart on visiting violence into my life if you are so inclined, or otherwise intruding into it in threatening ways.
This is, perhaps, at the heart of my puzzlement about the Zuckerbergs. To them, the gold standard of information is actually this very reductive system of ID codes that says nothing about the people to whom they belong. I am certainly not degrading the beauty of a name, but again in isolation a name and picture do not say much about the human being behind them. I can actually get to know a person quite well without knowing their name, and I have had life-saving and meaningful discussions online with people I will never meet, whose legal names and faces I will never know. Yet they revealed, in confidence, much more about themselves than those two bits of information would ever have shown me.
Quality information that, when taken together, formed a picture of a human spirit.
It was precisely their ability to shed the driver’s licence information that made them able to bring that spirit into sharper relief, and in so doing disseminated information that was thousands of times more valuable. To put it in those cold business terms, the value add was considerable.
IV. – To Know Good From Evil
There is also the question of whether or not having one’s face and name known deters one from committing harassment or worse crimes. Again the often marginalised and disregarded experience of women proves immeasurably useful here.
For the armies of women sexually harassed on the job, they know the name and face of the perpetrator(s). It does not make the situation easier to deal with, it does not make it less complicated emotionally and spiritually, it does not reduce its impact, and it does not guarantee justice. Many women are also raped by men they know– ask them if knowing their rapist has made it any easier for them to find justice, any easier for their community to mete out the proper punishment, any easier to stop him from raping again.
The conviction expressed by anti-anonymity advocates is that only the mask of anonymity allows bad people to do bad things online. They are bigoted harassers only because their names cannot be attached to their prejudice.
The problem with this line of thinking is twofold: one, it assumes all prejudiced people are ashamed of their bigotry. Many are quite unapologetic, and the reason for this is problem number two- most prejudiced people do not consider their views to be prejudice. They use any number of euphemisms and circumlocutions for their hate: ‘common sense’ ‘rationality’ ‘political incorrectness’ ‘sanity’ ‘the natural order’ ‘the way things are’ ‘the un-PC truth’ ‘the real world’ and so on. One could fill a book with these dissembling phrases. But the simple psychological point is: if you do not see yourself as doing anything wrong, why would having one’s name attached to it make it harder to do?
One significant operation of power here is that the privileged get to define what constitutes harm to the relatively less privileged. Whites get to decide what is and isn’t racist, cis men get to decide what is and isn’t sexist, and so on. Predictably, many except the most morally stalwart will seek to define the prejudices in question in their own interests; whatever they are doing at a given moment never fits their personal definition of bigotry.
Thus, anti-anonymity advocates are committing a very basic fallacy when they suggest that people will be less stalkerish, less creepy, less prejudiced, less asshole-ish to each other online if only we all knew each others names. They are making the assumption that prejudiced people espy a target, recognise their full and equal humanity in all of its glory, then consciously decide to ignore it and act contrary to the decency this otherwise calls for.
The trouble is, however, that people who stalk and harass do not see their targets as human to begin with.
People who bully others or are otherwise abusive already have trouble understanding the humanity of the people they attack.
The sociological model used by the Zuckerbergs and their fellows is one that presumes bullies and bigots could only ever be inveterately evil moustache twirlers who, in full consciousness, see their targets as human beings and then, with equal consciousness and intent, decide to disregard that humanity. This is not how prejudice works except in extremely rare cases. Most bigots are ‘sincere’ in the sense that they genuinely do not see themselves as doing anything especially wrong. It is why we have such lengthy and painful arguments with bigoted people that turn around the maddeningly simple question of whether or not they are being prejudiced at a given moment. Many men seem to have a hard time accepting, for example, that various forms of sexual harassment are not “a natural expression of male sexuality” to name just one rival interpretation.
Under these conditions, the idea that name-disclosure will severely curtail anti-social behaviour (to use the turgid euphemism now in vogue) is a fantasy.
This issue of power relations is central to understanding why the promises of anti-anonymists are delusional at best.
Consider David Brin, the man who wrote The Transparent Society. In it he predicts a coming future where, if we the masses play our cards right, all personal information will be free and it will actually enhance, not curtail, our freedom. As the Amazon.com review says by way of summary:
“While this has the makings for an Orwellian nightmare, Brin argues that we can choose to make the same scenario a setting for even greater freedom. The determining factor is whether the power of observation and surveillance is held only by the police and the powerful or is shared by us all. In the latter case, Brin argues that people will have nothing to fear from the watchers because everyone will be watching each other. The cameras would become a public resource to assure that no mugger is hiding around the corner, our children are playing safely in the park, and police will not abuse their power.”
No matter how many precautions one takes, this is simply not possible. The reason is that this even appears feasible is because it conceives of power only its most narrow and reductive form. The police have power, and non-police don’t. The government has power, and the masses don’t. Et cetera. This is a poor reading of power relations. Brin’s argument is that is the police control the security cameras, it’s totalitarian, but if “the people” control them, it’s virtual democracy. The problem is that as any social justice activist will tell you, not all powerful people wear uniforms and carry fancy titles. Not all power is expressed through the medium of legally enumerated privileges (i.e. the police/military monopoly on sanctioned violence).
When a parent beats a child, they are expressing power through dominance– even if the parent is poor, unemployed and otherwise poorly regarded socially. Same with marginal young men going “poofter bashing” in Australia or a working class man beating his wife in France or a no-name woman abusing an animal.
We can also point to street harassment, or sexual harassment in the workplace, or marital rape as expressions of power that are enacted between people who are not necessarily easily mapped onto a Powerful State versus Powerless Public schema. For white cis men it is easy to pretend that the only ‘real’ power holders are presidents, CEOs, generals, prime ministers, and emperors. For the rest of us we know that while those people hold real, terrible power, they aren’t alone in their ability to harm.
To wit I would not trust a random member of the public with my information any more than I would trust Citicorp or Prime Minister Stephen Harper or a police sergeant. When I was sexually harassed at a hair salon the man who was doing it was exercising considerable social power to keep me in place, polite, and fearful of what he might do if I refused his many insistent advances too harshly.
Anonymity is a lens that refracts and diffracts social behaviour. It also creates some social behaviour, this is true. But societal and structural prejudice are not among those behaviours. The most cursory glance at human history, conducted by even the poorest student, will make abundantly plain that human cruelty long predates the internet and has never needed anonymity to be either powerful or widespread. There are discrete occasions where anonymity has provided cover to the wicked. But there are many more occasions where anonymity was a tool for those who would fight the wicked.
Anonymity actually encourages the free flowing of information, it facilitates needful dissent, provides shelter in which one can think and create, and acts as a breeding ground for new identities. It is a means by which we can ensure, at least for a time, that we are not at the mercy of the powerful, and not at the beck and call of their ability to interpolate us through our assigned names.
Do I dream of a world where everyone knows everyone’s name and no one ever abuses that information? Yes. Do I believe such a world is even possible? Yes, I do. I’ve never shied from being called an idealist. But I also know we do not live in that world yet, and until we do, anonymity is a very powerful tool that- like any tool- can be misused. That’s no cause to banish it, however.