What’s in a name? Well, ask Benjamin Franklin; not only was he a prolific user of the pseudonym, he is the best example of both literary, personal, and political use of the pseudonym to express things that society typically punishes people for daring to mention. Things like:
- Disparity between treatment of mothers and fathers in relation to illegitimate children,
- Public relations regarding colonists; countermanding negative British press about America,
- Pointed satire the type of which frequently results in cultural derision or disdain,
- Voicing information that puts one into personal or professional danger (such as whistle blowing).
As we know, some of these names were “transparent” pseudonyms (i.e., known pen-names of the author), while others were attributed only after his death.
Did “not knowing who he was” make his works any less readable?
Did it render his work as being “of lesser quality”?
Did it “automagically” mean he was an inferior person or somehow discountable or otherwise not worth reading?
(Yes, I’m looking at YOU, Robert Scoble!)
The answer, of course, is, “No.” But the point goes much further:
Discounting content solely upon the identity of its writer is the most specious and elitist reasons conceivable; this is particularly true when one considers the wealth of writers whose works were only known by pen-name or
pseudonym as well as content where authorship remains uncertain, even as their output has reached legendary literary or historical significance:
- William Shakespeare (identity still contested/debated)
- George Orwell (legal name: Eric Arthur Blair)
- Voltaire (legal name: Francoie-Marie Arouet)
- Publius (a collaboration of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay)
There are, of course, MANY more; a full list that covers all of human history would become it’s own reference book, but this short series of examples proves the point nicely, I think.
Actually, there are many points of flawed thought in this ongoing discourse; the historically and logically correct perspective is reached simply by flipping them onto their head. Any counter thus demonstrated can stand quite well alone but, taken together, they become a formidable expression and counter to the foolishness of these authoritarian, elitist, and inaccurate opinions and stereotypes:
Regarding authorial intent – “People who write under anonymously or using a pseudonym…”
- …are ashamed of their words and seek only to avoid responsibility for them.
- …are dishonest and just trying to “stir up trouble”.
- …cannot or should not be taken seriously or be allowed to speak.
- …have no purpose or place in any culture or society.
Regarding content “value” – Things that are elitist, ill-considered, and stereotypical
- Content that cannot be clearly attributed to a legal name is less important.
- Content that is not clearly attributed to a legal name is not worth knowing of/reading.
- Content that is written under pseudonym has no redeeming social value.
- Content that is written under pseudonym is only intended to be “rude” or “uncivil”.
The mainstream disdain of anonymous and pseudonymous communication rises, I think, from:
- A profound sense of misplaced entitlement in relation to any given person’s “right to know who someone is”,
- The ongoing conflict between copyright, “copy left“, and the intellectual property debate in general, and, frankly,
- The dichotomy between those who derive status and value from “being known” and their somewhat impossible struggle to protect against erosion of status and value in the face of compelling content being delivered from people who are unknown by choice.
That last conflict is, I think, an ongoing and soon-to-be-epic struggle between established media and the evolution of information control and flow beyond the grasp of traditional “gatekeepers”; media and news outlets in particular. It is largely exacerbated by a seemingly infinite arrogance that “the way it has always been” is (a) best, (b) significantly contributory to a well-informed society, (c) effectively reflective of the spectrum of perspective in the world.
Naturally, all three points are currently under vociferous contention; I suppose it is to be expected that any situation in which they may find other than traditional acceptance and acquiescence is doomed to become a battleground. I think what surprises me is the degree to which the average main-streamer** is willing to do just about anything to avoid having to consider what this conflict and the change it represents can mean. (Actually, I tend to think most reflexively shrink from and push against it precisely because it means change.)
At this point, I think the assertion that both anonymous and pseudonymous communication are intrinsically valuable things in this world is relatively unassailable. In fact, I find the only attempts to engage them whatever rise from foundationally flawed logic or inescapably elitist perspectives, neither of which lend toward other than an arched brow and something of a melancholy sigh here. As the fellow mentioned at the beginning of this piece once wrote:
“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
The point and purpose of anonymous and pseudonymous communication throughout our human history has many contexts of usefulness, primary among which is to provide each of us with an avenue of essential liberty to say what we must with a degree of safety from inappropriate, illegal, or unethical retaliation. These means of communication have served equally well to protect and allow proliferation of artistic and musical expression; a reality that is particularly demonstrable when such expressions run counter to current societal or cultural preferences, mores, and norms.
The reality that persons of ill intent may at times avail themselves of such to perpetrate various calumnies does not whatever negate these things; such abuses are rampant in human history as well and have never served valid reason to constrain; removal of liberty from the majority to ineffectively attempt protection against the minority is known to be a flawed and fruitless effort, albeit one that is infinitely attractive to those who cannot or will not admit that eradication of fundamentally base human tendencies cannot be so easily attained.
A culture or society that will know quality discourse must by nature be open to divergent discourse and discussion. In leiu of this, it must be open to methods by which such may occur; the reality of human tendency against open discourse as reality is readily acknowledged and tacitly demonstrated by the historical embrace of anonymous and pseudonymous communication. We are not yet at the place in time where such things can be deliberately stricken and to do so guarantees nothing more than that we allocate authority and control of our expression to those least likely to support them as necessities to these ends.
I cannot in good conscience support any outlet in which this mentality is alive or is being nourished… can you?
** – Any label such as this is bound to have more exceptions than the rule it seeks to establish; but this does more to support the point than detract from it, does it not?