April 14 e-mail 5 from Johannes Climacus


Johannes Climacus to section1 09

In Defense of Anonymity


Fellow Classmates:

Like Mr. Timaru, I also rarely engage in this kind of mass dialogue. When a discussion is in mass e-mails it is inherently problematic, at least to the extent that a lot of people are getting e-mails that really do not want them.  However, the forum has been set and until it changes I am going to address this comment to all of you.  There is one aspect of this conversation in general and the letter in particular that bothers me more than the dilution of the idea of what counts as “hate speech” or what is “racist” or whether we need some kind of systemic change here at the Law School.  I am concerned with our ready denunciation of the author’s choice of anonymity.  Anonymity has been used in the expression of ideas throughout history for a number of reasons.  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was originally signed An Englishman.  All 85 of the Federalist Papers appeared under the name Publius and responses by the Anti-Federalists under A Federal Farmer, Candidus, and Cato.  After ratification attacks to the newly formed government came under the name Leonidas and Scipio.  Many early abolitionist writers shielded themselves behind names such as A Colored Baltimorean, Communipaw, Magawisca, and Zillah.  Pseudo Dionysius, C.S. Lewis, and Mary Ann Evans each used pseudonyms for less political reasons.  In short, there is nothing wrong with anonymity qua anonymity; in fact it is a valuable tool for expressing unpopular views, raising awareness, and generating change.

Now it may be sad and disappointing that such a great tradition has been hijacked by an author who, whether tasteless joke or serious commentary, expressed a view that the majority of us find ignorant and misguided.  This is not the first time this has happened.  However, I think it is important to see that the anonymity is not the problem.  There are of course times where we might feel that anonymity is unfair.  However, this is not a personal, slanderous attack on an individual, and this is also nothing like autoadmit where, due to our great modern technology, this personal attack is preserved and, through google, made searchable and available to employers.  Rather, this e-mail was circulated among a group of 80 students, 80 students I believe are enlightened enough to trade in ideas and not in insults.  Like all others this idea should enter the public forum and, once there, this particular idea should quickly be dismissed.  But it should be dismissed for the right reasons, because its logic is flawed and its assumptions are outrageous and, to some, even offensive.  Its mode of entry is irrelevant, the criticism is content based and that is enough.  All that can be gained from knowing who the sender is is that we can point at the person and not at the idea.  I see no value in this, we are all ignorant at times.

So I guess this is is my try at creating dialogue.  The question I ask is why do we care that this person is anonymous?  Is it because we feel that attacks on the letter’s content must be supplemented by attacks on the writer’s person?  Or is it so we can actually ask that person not to express their views anymore?  I write anonymously not because I feel the need to hide who I am, but because I feel the need to support a fellow classmate’s choice of expression.

I’ll end with my personal favorite, not for any particular relevance.

Johannes Climacus


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