I don’t often post to the internet
But when I do, I post under a pseudonym.
The SCS board has made a statement condemning anonymous online attacks. The statement is vague, perhaps deliberately so. This obscurity, however, means that it is not clear what precisely the board is condemning. Given the timing, it would be natural to believe it is an institutional response to an online post critical of Mary Beard, who herself addressed the use of anonymity in a post on her TLS blog. But I don’t really know what prompted the board, and I do not intend to speculate further on the motivations; instead, it may be worthwhile to look more closely at the SCS statement itself.
It will be necessary to clarify my starting position, an idea that is not, so far as I can tell, widely held: anonymity is not universally to be condemned. Many people, I know, will find any defense of anonymity misplaced. I am ambivalent about anonymity myself. So let’s start where I expect to find broad agreement in principle, if not in practice: harassing people is wrong. I’ll repeat it, for clarity: harassing people is wrong.
Those familiar with professional classics are probably aware of the notorious blog famae volent. This blog showed the ugly underbelly of the field when anonymous commentators made sexist and racist statements about other classicists, among much else objectionable. This behavior deserved condemnation, and I suspect that the SCS board condemned it then. Doubtless, the anonymity of the platform gave license for some people to express such views. However, if one were to read all the anonymous comments on the blog (NOT RECOMMENDED!), I bet that such a brave soul would find many unobjectionable and even many good anonymous statements. Simply put, just because anonymity may license hateful people to say hateful things, it does not follow that every statement made anonymously is hateful. In fact, on famae volent, the non-objectionable comments might even outnumber the objectionable. I don’t want to test the idea. My position should, I hope, be clear regardless: anonymous statements can be judged on what they say. We do not need to know the name on a writer’s passport to decide if we think the statement is harassment or not.
To be clear and to avoid confusion, I do not support harassment, sexism or racism (anonymously or in propria persona). I am also well aware that anonymity can allow more scope for it online and I believe it is justified for some online fora to forbid it. I also sympathize with those who, having suffered online harassment from anonymous trolls, are ready to condemn every anonymous statement. It is not my purpose to argue that every anonymous statement is worthwhile, that we must always allow anonymity because of FREEDOM (TM), or any such extreme defense. My point about anonymity is that we can also evaluate the statement without regard to the anonymity. Anonymity is complex — everything that cannot be attributed to a person is not, I suggest, wrong.
It is now time to re-examine the SCS board’s statement and why it seems so bizarre, at least to me. As an experiment, let’s remove the word “anonymous” from the statement.
The SCS Board of Directors condemns the practice of writing and circulating ad hominem attacks. Frank exchange among its members, including openly expressed criticism, are ideals of a scholarly community. Attacks contradict the principle of frank exchange.
As a statement of ideals, I am fine with it. As amusing as ad hominem attacks are in Demosthenes or Cicero or certain BMCR reviewers I can think of, they are not the best of a scholarly community. The statement is unobjectionable, although it is a tad banal. Next, let’s keep “anonymous,” but change the critical language of “attacks” and “ad hominem.”
The SCS Board of Directors condemns the practice of writing and circulating anonymous statements. Frank exchange among its members, including openly expressed criticism, are ideals of a scholarly community. Anonymous statements contradict the principle of frank exchange.
This statement no longer seems banal and unobjectionable. Given the history of anonymity (or perhaps pseudonymity is better), it is open to criticism: anonymity existed before the internet. Why does the SCS want to be able to attribute every statement to a real person? What if anonymity allows for a franker exchanged, unfettered by the power structures in the field? Obviously, it won’t always do that, but it is possible to have a frank, scholarly exchange with a person without knowing their name and reading their CV. I’ve even done it in person! The statement is also based, explicitly, on an “ideal” of a scholarly community, a community where the less powerful having nothing to fear from those with more power. I do in fact believe that this ideal is mostly correct; in my experience, scholars can look past personal criticism and behave responsibly. Your mileage may vary. I have heard some anecdotes from people who have very different experiences, and so I can sympathize with those who feel that not everyone will behave as the ideal suggests.
The SCS board’s statement seems evasive, conflating anonymity and ad hominem attacks, leaving it unclear what is being condemned. Is it only anonymous ad hominem attacks, but it is fine if you use your real name? Or is it okay to level severe criticism at a scholar anonymously so long as it is not ad hominem? And who decides whether the anonymous statement is a baseless attack or a serious criticism? Or is the case that any criticism, if it is anonymous, is an attack?
Online behavior, like its offline counterpart, is complex. I have long appreciated the anonymous nature of the internet precisely because statements must be evaluated without reference to the person who made it. A living death of the author. What fun! But it would be irresponsible to let my fun at free exchange blind me to the bad side of anonymity. All harassment should be condemned. But condemning anonymity obscures the question of whether a criticism is harassment or a frank exchange. Anonymity allows hateful people to say hateful things they might otherwise have not said and there are real reasons why certain forms of anonymous harassment should be strongly condemned, especially if threatening. We want to be able to involve the mechanism of state control against the perpetrators. But is that always the case when criticism is anonymous? The SCS board’s statement fails, in my view, to see the complexity (or history) of anonymity.