[Stanley Fish has a column up that I assume includes typical hand-wringing about the place of anonymity on the internet -- I haven't actually read the article, because I find Stanley Fish's writing in the Times to be really annoying. Nevertheless, I'm going to riff on the basic topic, citing Fish's unread column only because it's what brought this topic to mind.]
One often hears complaints about the use of anonymity on the internet, usually from people in the mainstream media who worry about people using anonymity irresponsibly, to say things they wouldn’t be willing to say in their own name. Abuse of anonymity, it is often assumed, is one of the things that make the internet such a toxic, uncivil place, and therefore allowing its use is highly questionable.
What I’d like to argue here is that allowing the use of real names in internet discourse is equally questionable if not moreso. To get at why this is true, let’s look at the difference in reactions to an anonymous commenter who makes a racist remark and the recent racist remarks of Hayley Barbour. In the case of the anonymous commenter, people will likely pile on, call him a racist, etc. In the case of Barbour, everyone notices that he’s an influential and powerful person and therefore assumes that he just slipped up and can’t possibly be a racist. In fact, everyone is afraid to come out and call Barbour a racist precisely because being a “racist” is regarded as an extremely bad thing, hence an insult, hence a personal attack — which then winds up rebounding on the accuser and making them look bad.
Similar dynamics abound. For instance, the kinds of things John Yoo advocated are absolutely dispicable and inhuman — but when you then think of John Yoo as a person, who presumably has his own needs and desires and loves his family, etc., suddenly appelations like “war criminal” and “worthy of death” seem somehow disproportionate.
Why should people engaged in public debate be able to abuse their status as particular human beings like this? It’s precisely these spurious appeals to our shared humanity that keep us from having a viable public sphere. The solution is precisely to disallow the use of real names and instead require consistent pseudonyms, so that all names in the public sphere of the internet are the names of discourses rather than human beings. If someone insists on using their real name, let it be treated as a pseudonym as well.