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Anonymity and civility

March 22, 2008

The topic of civility on the internet has gotten a lot of ink recently (posting, posting, posting). People flame each other online in ways they would never do in a public meeting. And this tendency is most extreme in anonymous postings on blogs and web sites.

What is it about anonymity that sometimes brings out the worst in people? Fundamentally it is the separation between speech and accountability that sometimes poisons anonymous speech. Plato speculated about the Ring of Gyges in the Republic: how would people behave if their actions were entirely untraceable? And English moralists had similar fears about the Masquerade in the eighteenth century: social functions in which men and women attended in masked costumes were bound to create moral disorder (web page). Anonymous speech on the internet seems to provide a real-world test of the proposition. And, by the evidence, there are a fair number of people who will take the cloak of anonymity as permission to express outrageous, harmful, and fundamentally disrespectful things to and about others.

And it is interesting to realize that this is not a twenty-first century development. One of E. P. Thompson’s final books was a careful study of the social conflicts in rural eighteenth-century England (Whigs and Hunters), where he focuses on the “Black Act” — a package of laws designed to squelch poachers, timber thieves, and other rural misbehavior. Two behaviors in particular were prohibited with severe penalties — going about in a mask and conveying anonymous, often threatening, letters. Anonymity was a tool that was used by individuals and groups to threaten and coerce landlords, wardens, and gamekeepers. Thompson describes a raft of anonymous letters and their social function in “The Crime of Anonymity” (included in Albion’s Fatal Tree).

Here are some examples of anonymous letters that Thompson quotes in the appendix to “The Crime of Anonymity”:

Ms orpen i am informd that you and your family whent before last year and glent up what the pore should have had but if you do this year it is our desire as soon as your corn is in the barn we will have a fire for it is a shame you should rob the pore …

this will all com true
this is to give notis that you millers and shop keeper all
kill the over Seeer
had best to take keare of youer selves and mind that you
arnt kild and if you dont sink with your folower [flour] we will make
tom Nottage is a dam Rouge
you sink for we have rob your Mill seavel [several] Times and we
kill him for one there is 4 more we will kill

To The Damd Eternal Fire Brands of Hell Belonging to Odiham and its Vicinity. In other Words to the Damd Villans of Farmers that with hold the Corn that please God to send for the Poeple of the Earth away from them.

And a response from the forces of order —

Guineas Reward

Whereas some wicked and evil disposed Person or
Persons, did write a Letter, addressed to Joseph Bulmer,
threatening to take his Life, and to burn his Premises, unless
he would advance the Shipwright’s Wages–and did put the
same Letter under the Door of the Compting-House of
Messrs. R. Bulmer and Co. in South Shields, where the same
was found on the Morning of the 14th Inst.

Whoever will give Information so that he, she, or they,
may be convicted thereof, will be paid a Reward of ONE
HUNDRED GUINEAS by the said Messrs. Bulmer, on
the Conviction of such Offenders or any of them …

So what are we to make of this curious behavior from two centuries ago and from the present? One piece of the story of anonymity is the situation of “speaking truth to power”. Anonymous threats and accusations are “weapons of the weak” in James Scott’s terms (Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance). They are a way for powerless people and groups to express and advocate their claims without repression. And they can be a potent social instrument of power as well, constraining the power and behavior of the high and mighty. It is why the complaint box doesn’t require a sign-in process. Thompson puts it this way: “The anonymous threatening letter is a characteristic form of social protest in any society which has crossed a certain threshold of literacy, in which forms of collective organized defence are weak, and in which individuals who can be identified as the organizers of protest are liable to immediate victimization” (Albion’s Fatal Tree, 255).

But anonymity can also be a tool of oppression and intimidation. Anonymous messages and actions can be intimidating and harmful on a range of levels, from irritating and insulting to slanderous and reputation-destroying. The anonymity of the klansman’s sheet and hood was deliberate: it made it all the more impossible for the people oppressed and threatened by the KKK to retaliate against the pharmacist or gas station owner who cowered within. And it permitted the threat of Klan violence to be all but irresistible.

The discussions that are occurring online about civility often invoke Jurgen Habermas and his ideas about the public sphere as a place for open and civil debate (e.g., The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society). The idea here is that publicity is an essential component of a democratic polity: people engage with each other in a public space, and they embody an ethic of mutual respect that permits profound disagreements to occur without the collapse of civility. And, through these public interactions the citizens develop the possibility of a deeper consensus about what is to be done.

So it seems that the categories of privacy, anonymity, civility, and public democracy are all tied together somehow. And the internet gives this mix of sometimes conflicting values a particular urgency.

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