Owning What You Say
I spent a predawn hour or so in a limousine yesterday being whisked from the quiet of my home in Connecticut to the busy streets of Manhattan. The good people at Fox News had asked me to be a guest on "Fox and Friends." The topic was whether the Choate Rosemary Hall boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticit, had overreacted by expelling a couple adolescent girls for behaving like adolescent girls on Facebook. I met with a makeup artist; someone else insisted on trying to do something with my hair; and I was plopped in front of a camera to answer a few questions. It all happened so fast, I doubt I changed anyone's mind. But perhaps that was not the point; perhaps my point of view was mere performance art. The morning's experience set me to thinking about social media.
But first a confession: I blog and opine almost daily as a blatant effort at self-promotion. I say what I think and why I think it. Some I hope to persuade, others to provoke, and the vast majority, I hope merely to have notice. To paraphrase Descartes: I speak, therefore I am. When Fox or some other media outlet calls, I am happy to oblige with my opinions. I won't pretend to be sitting in solitary atop the Good Mountain Virtue, like some digital Cincinnatus too good for the fray. I write the way I practice law: I am confident. I will pit my skills as a trial lawyer against anyone's, anywhere, anytime. That makes me immodest and a braggart. I've got stuff; I like to strut it.
But I do all this under my own name and without regard for the consequences. Folks read this page for good or ill. Others come to avoid me on principle, and encourage their friends to avoid me as well; just as I avoid chattering that I find unctious.
I report all this not to unveil some new and esoteric truth, but simply to highlight the humdrum and obvious character of the choices I make in communicating. My hunch is we all make these choices all of the time. We made them before there was an Internet, and we make them online as well. There really isn't much new about the social media phenomena; it's the same old snark in digital form.
Or is it? The New Haven Register today ran an editorial about its internal debate regarding whether to publish anonymous online comments. The paper decided to publish them, but noted that a significant percentage of those comments required deletion for being uncivil and simply vicious. Much though the paper wants to serve as a vehilce for communication, it also realizes that anonymity breeds something worse than contempt. The paper has decided to retain anonymous comments, but retains the right not to publish those comments it finds offensive.
I am not so sure that anonymous speech is worth protecting. Today's online scribbler isn't publishing the Federalist Papers and urging broad public principles; most often they are just venting a spleen full of hate for reasons private and often pathetic.
The model of communication that strikes me as most worth protecting is rooted in Aristotle's conception of citizenship. The Athenian philosopher thought the ability to communicate openly in a forum was the mark of a citizen. Yet nowhere in his Politics does he mention masks. Citizens meet to confer and to decide the issues of the day face-to-face in the agora, or marketplace. The Internet has become the modern near-equivalent of the agora. We meet here, confer here, and strive, when possible, to agree, or at least to express ourselves, in our various performances online. But we do so without having to own what we say. The results are too often cheap speech.
I say anonymous communication cheapens the currency. Folks taking pot shots or sniping behind false names won't show their face in a public forum. They crow like neutered cocks. A newspaper or online forum doesn't build a community by posting pseudonymous rage or snark: any drunk can attack when his or her inhibitions are lowered by enough alcohol: Creating a virtual hangover zone by permitting folks to shed the responsibility to own what they say doesn't make better citizens.
But reasonable minds can disagree on this, as on most other things. The joy of the Internet is its seemingly infinite reach. We are each free to respond as we will to who and what we will. There are many flat keys in the discordant cacophony produced by millions of keyboards. If mine fall flat on your ear, I don't expect your readership. When yours fall flat on my tone-deaf ears, I am free to move on. I've made friends and lost friends online, just as in the non-digital world. I say hello as often as I say goodbye both online and face-to-face.
What amazes me online, however, is the phenomenon of anonymous or pseudonymous snark. When I walk away from someone I come to dislike or for whom I have lost respect, I try simply to walk away and to avoid the parting shot. I don't always succeed, however. It takes time to mourn the loss of a friend; disappointment can yield bitter words. But online this disappointment seems to become a world of its own. There are readers who exist merely to hate. I see no value in providing them a forum where they can hate without the courage to own their hatred.
I disagree with the New Haven Register's policy on anonymous comments. I think people should own what they say; posting anonymous chatter seems to transform the role of citizen into gossipmonger. All of us seek to promote ourselves and our points of view in the manner and means by which we present ourselves in everyday life. Speech without the consequence of being known as the speaker is rarely worth much. I'm not sure my speech acts, whether online or on television, transform the world. I hope they do. But even when they don't, I know I have least left a mark bearing my name. I own what I do, and expect others to do likewise.