The Courage of Pseudonymous Conviction

Anonymous speech poses a challenge to defining responsible civic discourse. The New white blank maskRhetoric provides one model of responsibility in noting that “since rhetorical proof is never a completely necessary proof, … thinking [people] who give [their] adherence to the conclusions of an argumentation does so by an act that commits [them] and for which [they are] responsible” (62). Argumentation requires the give and take of ideas. We judge the quality of those ideas in conversation, agreeing and disagreeing with our interlocutors. Without names to match to ideas, discussion is difficult if not impossible.

Knowing who your interlocutor is doesn’t guarantee responsible discussion (what does?). Demands for a response can go unanswered. However, when speakers’ words connect to their identities, then their discursive infelicities become part of their ethos. If a person refuses to respond or speaks in ways disruptive to conversation, s/he becomes known for irresponsible speech.

Pseudonymous speech can to some extent replicate this identity formation process, although not nearly as well as conversations between named interlocutors. And anonymous speech, tossed into a conversation like a petrol bomb, can serve to harass and disrupt conversation with no chance of sustained dialogue.

Anonymous and pseudonymous speech does, however, play a role in responsible discourse. When predominant views in a community unjustly demean or violate the rights of others, those in the minority need the cover of anonymity to avoid retaliation. A current church-state separation case addresses this issue.

Two families in Pennsylvania have filed suit through the Freedom From Religion Foundation to remove a 10 Commandments Monument from their school’s property. They filed suit as “Doe” plaintiffs. Pennsylvania State Representative Tim Krieger objects to such pseudonymous filings, and he has proposed a bill to discourage them. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune Krieger believes that:

Plaintiffs who want to remain anonymous should have to show “solid evidence” that they would be physically harmed if their identity is revealed, Krieger said. An anonymous plaintiff should have the “courage and convictions” to stand up publicly for their beliefs, he said.

There is a difference here between anonymous and pseudonymous speech. The plaintiffs are not unknown to all interlocutors. Their attorneys know who they are. But, for the purpose of a wider discussion with their fellow citizens, they are functionally anonymous. If their fellow citizens don’t know the identities of the plaintiffs, they can’t engage them in discussion.

It is, however, rather disingenuous of Krieger to accuse the pseudonymous plaintiffs of cowardice. In cases like this, many people are not interested in a simple contest of convictions. They are, sometimes literally, out for blood. At the very least, those who stand up can face harassment as detailed in the FFRF’s filing in support of pseudonymity.

The FFRF’s memorandum [pdf] documents a history of intimidation in church-state cases including death threats, assault, vandalism, pet killings, and widespread harassment that has driven some plaintiffs to move out of their towns. For example, the Dobrich family from Delaware moved away after continual anti-Semitic harassment following their objection to prayer at their daughter’s high school graduation.

The FFRF memorandum also documents the nuanced legal doctrine governing whether judges can allow plaintiffs to proceed anonymously. Let it suffice to say that the criteria are more complex (and convivial to civil harmony) than Krieger’s standard  of “evidence that a party would otherwise suffer serious physical harm” [pdf of bill].

Being driven from one’s home through relentless verbal harassment is not physical harm, but it surely is not acceptable either. In the context of pseudonymous plaintiffs, it is the structure of the judicial system itself that keeps the discussion responsible. The plaintiffs persist throughout the case, as they answer their interlocutors through their attorneys, bravely defending their rights through the judicial system—not lunging from the darkness with death threats like cowards.

Image Credit: Kaptain Kobold | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

About Todd Battistelli

Rhetorician and writing teacher. Keeping an eye on the state of civic discourse.
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