Sunday, June 11, 2006

On Voice and Anonymity

Anonymity is one of the few non-violent tools available to the relatively weak for use in improving their circumstances.
It is the veil that liberates. It allows at least some few who would otherwise be voiceless to come to voice, to tell their stories, to describe the world as it appears from their vantage point. Sometimes it allows a cat to look at a king – or if that is too optimistic – to at least think out loud about looking at a king, to speculate upon the nature of that glorious visage.

That is why journalists interviewing children seeking asylum who have had to go into hiding do not reveal their names.

It’s also why the Samaritans doesn’t require your identity before they’ll listen to you.
And it’s why, at least in some places, you can report hate incidents anonymously.

One of the beauties of blogism is that it can allow people who are relatively powerless (not absolutely powerless mind you, but relatively powerless) to come to voice without the mediating influence of journalists – be it benevolent, malicious or merely indifferent. And we must recognise that for some, this coming to voice is possible only because of anonymity.

The sixteen-year-old kid living in FredPhelpstown Central who is questioning her sexuality is more likely to bring her voice, her thoughts, into the public sphere if she can do so without the prospect of additional harrassment, violence and the small but not insignificant risk of death that would be attendant on the revelation of her identity.

For the relatively powerful, one’s name is one’s protection. It confers authority, it establishes their credentials. Sometimes it even grants a kind of impunity. For the relatively powerless, however, one’s name is often one’s greatest vulnerabilty. The vulnerabilities associated with one’s name are – to give one salient example – why refugees often lack identity documents.

It may be tempting to say that those who write anonymously just lack the courage to put their names to their words. To say that they simply need to learn to stand up for themselves or else, shut up or change what they say. I’m suspect most of us have seen such claims made in a wide variety of online and offline situations.

My rather brutal response would be: ‘Go tell that to Sophie Scholl.” As it happens, one cannot. She and others in her circle of friends were beheaded soon after their identification. One might, I suppose, make the claim that her interrogation and show trial provided her with a valuable opportunity to learn to stand up for herself: it’s not a case I’d care to make myself. Personally, I would rather she had lived on, along with her brother and friends to continue their work in cowardly anonymity.

Of course, her case is an extreme example. The claim that that it is isolated or exceptional, however, is difficult to sustain in our barbed wire world: Sophie Scholl merely inhabits a position near to one end of a particular continuum of political vulnerability.

In light of current events, I think it would also be useful to remember that even those who are relatively powerful in one context, may nonetheless be relatively powerless in another.

Let me digress a little (or a lot).
There’s an opera by Verdi called I Vespri Siciliani

Verdi was on a bit of a nationalist kick when he wrote it (but was Verdi ever not on a nationalist kick, she says, rolling her eyes?). It’s a political opera about a French invasion of Sicily. In the opening scene we see subjugated Sicilians being menaced by French soldiers, with what – at least in performance – usually involves thinly veiled threats of sexual violence against Sicilian women. Rape has been an established weapon in war for a long time now.

And indeed sexual violence – or more particularly, the ways in which rape is used simultaneously as weapon of war and as justification for war – is one of the main themes that runs through this deeply cynical opera. (At least I read it as deeply cynical)

After a bit of a setup, in which we are told about Our Noble Heroine Elena and the tragic death of her brother, she is introduced to the stage and vows to be avenged for her brother’s death. At the same time, she first encounters the French military, one of whom – an obnoxious individual by the name of Roberto tells her to sing for him. (Again, the staging usually makes plain the pleasure demanded from her voice is sexual)

She refuses. He threatens her with his ‘sword.’ Elena is a pragmatic woman and so she sings.

The other Sicilian women on stage watch intently.

Now this is an important moment: Elena is the most powerful Sicilian woman there is. If she can be raped with impunity (even figuratively) even while wearing mourning for her brother – what is there that cannot be done to those Sicilian women with less power? Whether those women liked Elena is beside the point. The reason they watch so intently what becomes of her is that whatever is done to her can so much more easily be done to them. After all, Elena is a powerful woman.

The purpose of analogy is not to assert identity, but rather to delineate points of similarity and difference. Nevertheless, while I think it important not to confuse that rare beast, solidarity, with the more pragmatic act of supporting someone for reasons of expediency, there may still be occasions when that pragmatic support is both right and necessary.


Blogger dove said...

What happened to Elena?

Well, she was not only a pragmatic woman, but an intensely political creature to boot. While she complies with her oppressor’s demand to sing, her choice of song is carefully designed to incite revolution. But it still all ends in tears.

6/11/2006 10:23 am  
Blogger misneach said...

Brilliant, the most interesting digression I've seen in a blog in ages.

I think anonymity is pragmatism these days anyway, not so much out of fear of some Big Brother Orwellian government (although that exists) or fear of thoroughly indoctrinated Good Ol Boys with shotguns and a T3 connection, but rather because more emphasis must be put on the actual message of a story rather than its author when the author is unknown.

I bet the political dissidents that Pakistan handed over to America (and said they were terrorists, then collected the Terrorist-Bounty) which then sent them to Guantanamo for over 4 years of dehumanisation wished they had maintained anonymity.

6/12/2006 3:28 am  
Blogger dove said...

Thankyou misneach -- that's really nice of you.

I think your point about anonymity sometimes allowing more emphasis on textual content rather than identity is interesting, not least because -- well, post under one handle long enough and it does in a way become an identity, in as much as there is a body of writing associated wtih that moniker.

Anyway -- from digression to ramble ;)

6/12/2006 7:18 pm  
Blogger thepoetryman said...

Wow. What an incredibly intelligent piece of writing. Thank you.

6/12/2006 8:48 pm  
Anonymous Maryb2004 said...

In light of current events, I think it would also be useful to remember that even those who are relatively powerful in one context, may nonetheless be relatively powerless in another.

When the powerful can be brought down so easily, what chance do the rest of us have? Especially those you pointed out who are at the most risk.

I would never have thought to use Verdi to prove those points. But you did it beautifully Dove. An excellent piece of writing.

6/13/2006 12:57 am  
Blogger catnip said...

Thank you. This brought much needed tears to my eyes.

6/13/2006 1:40 am  
Blogger dove said...

Thankyou maryb2004

Can I get your thoughts on something? (And those of others who might feel like weighing in of course).

I've noticed that in a few places (BT being the main one I'm thinking of, as I do still look in there from time to time) that one of the responses to current events has been that some have removed that veil of anonymity.

Circumstances being as they are, I guess I should make clear that what I'm about to say is not intended as an attack on BT, nor do I mean to suggest that those who have opted to reveal their offline identity are doing something wrong.

I think I understand why they're doing it -- it's intended, I think as a way of saying they stand by their words, and in a sense, as an attempt to show solidarity with the person outed.

But. I fear the end result could be one in which those who choose to reveal their offline identity will by default be perceived as more credible, more trustworthy than those who don't -- without enough thought for the fact that the consequences of revelation
are not the same for all of us.

While I think I understand and approve the motive, I'm worried that this could become just another kind of privilege -- an edge in credibility etc. that those who are in a position to simply 'go by their real name' will have over those who are not, sometimes for the kinds of reasons I've given in the main text here.

What do you think? Does that make any sense? Overly paranoid?

6/13/2006 1:49 am  
Anonymous Maryb2004 said...

But. I fear the end result could be one in which those who choose to reveal their offline identity will by default be perceived as more credible, more trustworthy than those who don't -- without enough thought for the fact that the consequences of revelation
are not the same for all of us.

I couldn't agree with you more. I have no problem with the people who have chosen to reveal their true identity. That's entirely up to them. But I see a subtle peer pressure going on to provoke people to reveal their identities. And I do worry that it will create two classes of users.

In fact, I think that is the intent with some of the more extreme bloggers who are pushing this issue. There is a group of people who believe very strongly that they and only they are right on progressive issues -- ALL progressive issues. They have these artificial litmus tests that they administer to see if a candidate is "progressive enough". I think they would like nothing more than to apply the same litmus test to those who blog on the sites they blog on. So that everyone will be able to identify the people that don't pass muster and those persons' opinions will count for less.

I'm really not very conspiracy minded but I've been watching this group for a long time. They use the same tactics that the right wing extremists use, wrapping themselves in something comforting to mask the true extremity of their views. The right wraps itself in the bible and the flag. Right now, this group is wrapping itself in "ethics". But it's all the same.

Maybe I went on too long or veered in a direction you didn't intend. But I'm very frustrated right now.

6/13/2006 5:26 am  
Anonymous Maryb2004 said...

It occurs to me in re-reading this that I may inadvertantly lead you astray in terms of the identity of the people I'm talking about. I'm not saying that the people who have disclosed their true identities are members of this other group that I attribute negative intent to. I think they are being used by this other group.

6/13/2006 5:43 am  
Blogger Man Eegee said...

dove, I can't tell you how glad I am to have the ability to continue reading your words.

maryb, your insight here and the comment you left at catnip's blog articulate what I'm feeling/thinking right now. Thanks for vocalizing your observations.

6/13/2006 7:59 am  
Blogger dove said...

Hi ManE,
Good to see you -- it's mutual by the way!

maryb04 -- it sounds like both you and ManE are picking up on something that has passed me by completely -- which is entirely possible since the 'candidates' threads and posts aren't really my bailiwick. Is what you're picking up on part of the 'pre-November rush on the centre because that strategy has worked so dang well before?'

6/13/2006 7:50 pm  
Blogger Man Eegee said...

thanks, I'm just a humble blogger who need to let out some steam on a regular basis :)

Wrt electoral politics and strategizing, it's not even the actual positions that bother me so much. When I read between the lines of hostility and sometimes rage, I find there's alot that I agree with. Where I have a visceral reaction is the whole, "you're my enemy if you don't follow every single tenet of liberalism that I have decreed".

The political climate in the U.S. is so hostile because the vast majority of citizens are no longer represented by the politicians. Bitterness at being ignored breeds apathy instead of action which indirectly signals a green light to the Money Changers to do as they wish. I don't know how we end the vicious cycle, but it's clear the status quo is demoralizing and dangerous. Some choose to fight it out in the street, while others choose to use that same corner to protest peacefully. I guess it's all part of that 'big tent' thing.

6/13/2006 8:43 pm  
Anonymous Maryb2004 said...

I’m sorry I’m not articulating clearly enough what I see.

No, it’s not a candidate issue but it is easier to see on threads that discuss candidates. I think most of us agree that the tendency of candidates to move to the center is a problem. So that’s not it. I’m not even talking about any particular issue – that would be too simple.

This is a group of people who believe that their views are unquestionably right AND that any opinion that differs from theirs is unreasonable or even downright evil. I call this extremism – the inability to see compromise on ANY issue. Extremism, when mixed with activism, can be quite dangerous because extremists believe so strongly in their own point of view that their entire moral center is skewed. They have a Borg mentality (from Star Trek)– “assimilate or you will be destroyed”. But the passive voice in that phrase masks the fact that THEY will do the destroying. They see themselves as activists for positive change and yet they use negative means.

Of course it would be easier if they came right out and said, “assimilate or you will be destroyed” because then a community could identify them for what they are. Instead they wrap themselves in “reasonable” arguments with which it is hard to disagree. If you are on the left-leaning side of the social/political spectrum it is hard to disagree with their goals. Certainly, in the opinion of most of us on the left, the world WOULD be better if their worldview were achieved. But achieved at what cost? This is how countries devolved into fascism and authoritarian communism.

I’ve often wondered how right wing extremists are able to convince otherwise normal conservatives to join their movement, but watching this group has given me some insight. You espouse high moral values, but bend the rules for specific people who “deserve it.” We lambaste those on the right who espouse Christian values but regularly find exceptions to basic Christian rules that allow them to act in unChristian ways. And yet we don’t necessarily see it when leftist extremists use the same modus operandi.

How do they operate? Mostly they sit and wait for opportunities to come out of the woodwork. They use any inflamed situation to their own advantage. Sometimes they engage directly but not always. And they are at their most insidious when they engage indirectly. If they see someone else making their argument for them, they encourage that person and discourage resisting opinions. All the while constantly stating that THEY aren’t taking the unreasonable position. “Perhaps the person making the argument is a little extreme, but basically with just a slight modification the position would be right? Wouldn’t it?”

I know you probably want me to identify these people, but I don’t feel comfortable doing that. Personally, I don’t think they are hard to pick out, but maybe I’m wrong. (I must be wrong to a certain extent or they would have been run out of the community by now.) It is, perhaps, unfair for me to speak in generalities and not give you links to their behavior. But as I said, the activity doesn’t exist in any one place. It is an insidious presence and any one example can be easily dismissed as an aberration. You have to watch over time to see it.

6/13/2006 9:08 pm  
Blogger dove said...

I think we do need to find a way of talking about this – I think it is a central fissure in leftist and liberal politics and I suspect it may be one where we occupy different terrain – not necessarily different sides of that fissure, but certainly different positions.

Certainly, if I understand what you're saying right ManE, the phenomenon you're identifying as frustrating is something I get accused of occasionally. And it's a fair accusation. (Let me be clear: I do not think you are making such an accusation about me, ManE or that Marybo4 is either. But what I am saying is: if you felt inclined to do so, I think the charge would stick, though I’d hope to be acquitted of the behaviour that Marybo4 describes.)

I don't know which people and situations specifically you are thinking about – if the present particulars are around pressuring people into revealing their offline identities – well I have some fairly deep-seated concerns around that. I should also note that I’m only speaking for myself, and I’m only referencing offline experience here.

What ManE has described as the "you're my enemy if you don't follow every single tenet of liberalism that I have decreed" phenomenon, I often hear (or indeed have said) as something like:

“If you refuse to commit to this issue (for reasons of principle, for expedient reasons, for ‘it’s not my problem’ reasons, for ‘it’s a difficult sell’ reasons), then you are treating those (of us, in some cases) whom it affects as less than fully human and we don’t have a basis to work together on those terms.”

Often said by a relatively powerless group to a relatively powerful group. In a way, it’s the classic ‘single issue’ problem and when it comes up I think it’s often deeply visceral, because even when it isn’t literally about life and death, it is about consenting to one’s own degradation.

It’s not something that I have ever said lightly. But I have said words to that effect and can envision circumstances in which I would do so again, because I do think there are some things around which compromise is not possible.

It occurs to me -- especially after your last, Maryb2004, that I may still have the wrong end of the stick in terms of what you're trying to get at.

6/13/2006 11:40 pm  
Blogger dove said...

Maryb2004 -- I'm sorry I mucked up your handle in my last -- late night brainglitch, I'm afraid.

6/13/2006 11:56 pm  
Anonymous Maryb2004 said...

It’s not something that I have ever said lightly. But I have said words to that effect and can envision circumstances in which I would do so again, because I do think there are some things around which compromise is not possible.

I understand that those circumstances exist. As you say, it’s not something that’s done lightly and it involves some things. I don’t disagree with you in principle although I suppose you and I could differ on the exact circumstances to invoke the non-compromise position. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m not sure I can explain any better what I mean, but let me take the words that you put into the mouths of ManE’s hypothetical annoying liberals and put in the words as I hear them from the people I consider extremists:

“If you refuse to commit to my vision of how the world should be in ALL aspects (for reasons of principle, for expedient reasons, for ‘it’s not my problem’ reasons, for ‘it’s a difficult sell’ reasons), then you are an impediment to my creating that vision of the world and since my vision of the world is the BEST vision it is entirely rational for me to neutralize, by any means, the power you may have to impede the progress toward that vision even if those means force me to violate some of the very norms that I espouse as being important in that worldview.

I know this seems somewhat melodramatic since what we’re talking about in terms of worldview is really a blogview – in other words, control over the direction and mindset of a group of bloggers not the entire world.

But destroying a blogger’s anonymity and thus his or her ability to post freely and truthfully in order to create a “pure” blogworld where bloggers will freely post the truth (as these people see it) strikes me as megalomania.

6/14/2006 1:15 am  
Blogger catnip said...

There have been two classes of people at BT since it began. You're either 'in' or you're 'out'. I have always been the latter, which is fine because being 'in' is not something I aspire to in any area of my life.

6/14/2006 1:24 am  
Blogger catnip said...

I just read the rest of the posts and was wondering if I am, in fact, in that 'in' group. Then again, I don't hang out there enough. But I sure as hell can be self-righteous.

Here's what I see (correct me if I'm off base, maryb): There is a group of like-mined people who have very rigid and determined ideas about their political stances on issues and they complement each other. Ergo, having found each other, they use the blog as their bully pulpit and decree that others who divert form their 'true beliefs' must simply be misguided or unenlightened - not realizing or not willing to realize that their stance is not the only so-called correct one (which relates to Bible literalists and fundamentalists as well.)

Therefore, they try to convert others by sometimes overt and often more subtle ways that they must come over from the dark side of their incorrect political beliefs to where they think they stand in the pure light. In order to do that, they play tag team commenting and rating - boosting each other up - in an effort to imply they are the strongest, most pure form of the 'correct' political expression of what it means to be a Democrat or a liberal. Those who refuse to convert are shunned and are simply collateral damage in the war of ideas, while the core group retains its self-made superiority - thus creating a self-fulflling prophecy for themselves that their ideas, in the end, are indeed the correct ones.

Is that it? Because when it comes down to it, I think it's basically group think, an echo chamber and peer pressure at the expense of the novel - which is endemic in blog communities. And that type of phenomenon is what stops communities from focusing on what they ought to: activism, because the internal power struggle becomes the topic du jour (said or unsaid) and the larger issues become more distant.

I wrote something about that last point here, which got me into serious conflict when I posted it at MLW.

6/14/2006 1:45 am  
Blogger dove said...

Just wanted to say thanks Maryb2004 -- this helps clarify a lot I think. The means and ends thing is hugely important, and one can't be subsumed in the other, I think. I'll have to wait to give a more substantive response until I'm a bit less in need of sleep

6/14/2006 1:49 am  
Blogger catnip said...

One more thing. There can be serious repercussions to outing bloggers. That's why I take this issue with more than a grain of salt.

6/14/2006 1:56 am  
Blogger dove said...

Hi catnip,

(just before I try to get some sleep) -- just wanted to be clear that I'm not backing away from why I think anonymity matters.

Anyway -- sleep for me.

6/14/2006 2:10 am  
Blogger catnip said...

I didn't think you were, dove.

6/14/2006 2:18 am  
Anonymous Maryb2004 said...

Catnip I don’t know if I’d use “in” or “out” because I associate that with social approval and what I’m describing isn’t really social. I don’t include you in the group I’m thinking of BTW if that’s what you’re worried about.

I think they ATTEMPT to use the blog as a bully pulpit although they aren’t always successful. In order to effectively use something as a bully pulpit you must have control over the mechanism, and they have no control. They are, in a sense, trying to gain control or trying to circumvent control in order to use the blog as their bully pulpit and sometimes they are succesful. I think your description of their methods is fairly accurate.

I even agree with you that the power struggle is a large part of the reason that there is less activism than there might be. This war they are waging for control of groupthink is draining all the energy away from more productive endeavors.

I guess where I don’t necessarily agree with you is where you say this:

Because when it comes down to it, I think it's basically group think, an echo chamber and peer pressure at the expense of the novel - which is endemic in blog communities..

I don’t think they have created the echo chamber or the group think yet. I think they are waging a war to control the echo chamber, to have it echo THEIR thoughts and ideas. But they haven’t achieved it blog wide yet – partly because BooMan so far has managed to preempt them and partly because there are still a few good souls who will fight them.

They are, however, getting closer and closer to their goal. I can’t begin to tell you how disturbing it is to me to see some of the people that they managed to co-opt onto their side in this last battle about anonymity. People I would never have expected to take their side.

6/14/2006 2:25 am  
Blogger catnip said...

Thanks for clarifying that, maryb. I think I've got it now. And it seems there are a few newbies there who are definitely adding fuel to the fire - names I've never seen before with some very uncomfortable agendas that seem to even expand on what was there already - if that makes sense.

Yes, it's hard to speak in vague terms about this but I think I'm following along even though I usually just pop in to scan the headlines and read one or two diaries that catch my interest. Maybe it's me, but the atmosphere seems to have become more aggressive.

6/14/2006 7:39 am  
Anonymous Maryb2004 said...

Catnip, who would believe that people could come out of the woodwork and lead part of the charge? I mean, who ARE these people? If they had come out of the woodwork to, for instance, argue on your side or on Izzy's side -- they would have been shot down so fast your head would spin. But they played right into the agenda, so they were encouraged.

Dove, if you don't mind I'm going to leave the discussion here. I apologize if I've hijacked the discussion following your beautiful diary but I felt it answered your question to me. And frankly it's helped me sort through some of the unpleasant thoughts that have been working through my brain for the last couple of days. I thank you for that.

I realize that I need to make some decisions in my own life about where I choose to blog and what I choose to blog about at certain blogs.

6/14/2006 3:18 pm  
Blogger dove said...

Okay -- here's an attempt at a substantive response, albeit longwinded.

Yes, this discussion did go in an unexpected direction -- I don't feel the need to use the term 'hijack' though, because I think that's exactly what discussions should do with reasonable frequency. And I am glad, also, that it's been a means of getting some clarity for Maryb2004.

Last, but certainly not least, I'm also glad to see you here Maryb2004, catnip, and ManEegee (and everyone else too, including to my great excitement some new faces). I hope all of you will continue to drop by and post here.

Having chewed it over for a bit and slept on it though, there are some things that trouble me about this particular conversation and I'd rather get it out there on record than not. That's not to say you should feel obligated to reply Maryb2004, or for that matter obligated not to reply.

I find the use of an unspecified 'they' problematic. In part that's because when such a 'they' is used, it means those who aren't in the know can't evaluate the truth of the claim, because they don't know who is being spoken about (in an online context, I don't mean the offline identity, but the online handle)-- and therefore cannot identify the specific words or actions involved.

Being able to independently evaluate the claim by looking at the words and actions in question is important.

Let me have a go at explaining why this matters to me. I mentioned that 'thinking that I and only I am right on progressive issues' is something I get accused of every now and then. In fact, when I was involved in a union dispute a while ago now, the phrase 'administering loyalty litmus tests' was used to describe my behaviour. And the charge might well have stuck (certainly the majority of people there considered that it did). My actions were not in dispute. Only their meaning, their significance, their implications were up for grabs.

Now I think that throughout that affair, I'd done my damndest to maintain the proper relationship between means and ends: those who thought I was administering litmus tests disagreed -- they thought I was operating 'by any means necessary.'

I also think that I'm capable -- sometimes, anyway -- of compromising, rethinking, and changing my mind: again, those who thought I was administering litmus tests disagreed.

Now my point isn't that they were wrong and I was right (although I was right dammit!) -- it's that without the evidence, you -- the reader -- have no way to judge between our competing claims.

(One could argue that I did something similar myself recently on BT, and there would be some truth to that too: in my defense I will say that though I did not name names, I did include illustrative evidence and that my decision not to name names was in part driven by my perception of that problem as collective and structural rather than individual. And, yes. I'm splitting hairs and drawing fine lines: we might well judge this differently.)

The second reason I find the unspecified 'they' troublesome is the same as that noted by Nanette on Latino Politico

Let me give a concrete example: catnip -- when you made the post to Latino Politico saying you were bowing out for a while, I was left wondering where I stood with you (despite your efforts to state that you were not making some kind of binary division)

The reason I was left unsure was because I had posted this same piece on MLW and I was not sure what you had made of my statement that:

"while I think it important not to confuse that rare beast, solidarity, with the more pragmatic act of supporting someone for reasons of expediency, there may still be occasions when that pragmatic support is both right and necessary."

From what I've read of your thoughts on this, catnip, you take Pastor Niemoller's famous words as a prescription for solidarity. I don't -- oddly enough I wrote about my thoughts on this almost a year ago to the day.

It occurred to me that I might be among the people with whom you were angry, because I view this issue as being primarily about a kind of enlightened self-interest, rather than about solidarity per se.

Now evidently from your initial response here, you weren't, but I did wonder.

In closing this monstrously long post though, let me just reiterate that I am very glad to see you both and hope you will keep dropping by and commenting here.

6/14/2006 8:04 pm  
Blogger dove said...

Grr. the link should have gone to

6/14/2006 8:06 pm  
Anonymous Maryb2004 said...


I know. Generalized vague statements are unfair (not to mention boring for other readers). That's why I knew it had to stop. I apologize.

6/14/2006 10:19 pm  

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