On Pseudonyms and Insults

Reflecting on the behavior of certain other co-bloggers at Patheos and their commenters on the question of pseudonyms, I was inspired to repost some ideas on this from last year.

Let me share my observations about being a pseudonymous Mormon blogger for over a decade.  There is a common belief that bloggers who “hide” behind a pseudonym will abuse that position to do bad things.  My experience, however, has not born this out.  Instead, the pseudonymous blogger is often the target of rude treatment that is not only socially acceptable but even cheered on by some.

The use of a pseudonym becomes an occasion for those who use their real names to 1) indulge in a false sense of moral superiority; 2) engage in name-calling against those who do not use their real names because they dehumanize the person they are interacting with; and 3) discount arguments because of the perceived unreliability of their source.

As I have argued before, and noted again and again in my experience, the use of real names is not a neutralizer, nor a way of ensuring social costs for bad behavior in conversation.  Rather, it is actually a way of smuggling certain privileges into the conversation to create uneven ground.  Those with little risk in expressing their opinions seek to inflict costs on others without recognizing that social and economic costs are not evenly born.  One’s education, employment security, maleness, callings, and other markers of social privilege become ways of asserting authority and silencing others.

I am continually shocked when commenters appear here, and assume gender identity of our bloggers and how that often changes the tone of their comments.  The question of race is often even more revealing, as I have noticed from some bloggers who confidently assert that God is a racist, or those who defend the language of “curse” to speak about others, or even those who have argued in favor of the persistence of slavery on supposedly libertarian grounds. When white bloggers think they are talking about race with other white people, they tend to speak of “we” unreflectively, and consider the issues of race almost entirely in terms of how it affects other white people, revealing the privileges of whiteness in rather stark terms.

I am also continually surprised by appeals to expertise and authority that are waged against pseudonymous bloggers when a dispute arises.  Those with the presumed authority of the status of “scholar” almost always treat a pseudonym as completely irrelevant, revealing so much about how much authority is flexed by those who believe they have it.  The condescending approach many people take when interacting with a pseudonym lays bare the need for social privileges to succeed in certain conversations.  These episodes reveal so much about our cultural expectation, and ultimately, a fundamental sickness in our LDS conversations.  It is not that I believe that authority is entirely irrelevant, or even useless, but rather that the use of a pseudonym has show me how disproportionately valued it is.

As I have noted in previous posts, the use of a pseudonym has a long history in religious and political writing.  For me, pseudonymity is a kind of spiritual and intellectual exercise.  I have learned not to take for granted anything about my conversation partners.  I have learned that I cannot rely on any social privileges I may enjoy to engage with others.  I am pleased to report that I am often surprised by thoughtful people, whom I know nothing about, and may not have paid attention to because of their lack of certain statuses.  I have also learned that those who use their real names, or who enjoy great amounts of social capital in some circles, are not exempt from making serious errors in judgment in their online behavior.  And I have always assumed that ethical interactions are the a duty regardless of the name one takes in a conversation.

Ultimately, the argument against pseudonymous bloggers is the ad hominem, and a rather lazy one at that.  Ironically, the opposition to the pseudonym is the perhaps the most pure form of ad hominem, equating the validity and worthiness of an argument with the status of the person making it.  It can be applied indiscriminately under the false cover that anyone making an argument under a pseudonym is suspicious, or even equivalent to the worst kind of anonymous trouble maker.  In my experience, it is not the use of real names that raises the level of our discourse, but the discipline of interacting with real arguments, seeking understanding, and exchanging ideas.

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