Some weeks ago, CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski raised eyebrows when he publicly announced that he had identified the creator of the video tweeted by the President, in which the President wrestles and emerges victorious over an opponent with the CNN logo for a head. CNN knew his identity, the network claimed, but was, in their mercy, going to refrain from naming him because he had apologized to them. The tone of CNNs statement struck many of us as disturbing: a major news network blackmailing a private citizen into groveling at their feet so they would not ruin his life (the gentleman in question was also the author of some anti-Semitic items about CNN). CNN disputed this interpretation, but the substance of their actions does not concern us here – the point is that accountability and reputation intrude into our online lives, and one must question where the lines are to be drawn.
Reason Magazine’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown started a kerfuffle over the weekend that throws the question into relief. The organization Ladies of Liberty, which works to further the involvement of women in the libertarian movement (a movement whose reputation as a domain of incompletely socialized young men is…not entirely unearned), tweeted out reminders that they maintain a speaker’s bureau – essentially, a list of women they can put you in touch with such that your event doesn’t look like a pitch meeting at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
One brave soul decided he had a clever retort to this, responding that he knew of a better example of “the best way for women to #MakeLibertyWin.” Attached to the posting was a photo of a Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato sandwich. The account was in his own name; the tweet was public, and directed at the @LadiesOfLiberty twitter account, not a private snark among friends. Ms. Brown, unhappy with our young malcontent, posted a screenshot of the tweet, suggesting that this young man’s attempts at humor might prove a liability in his future search for employment (upon my cursory inspection, he appears to be either a current student or recent college graduate), and followed up with further postings discussing the prevalence of sexism within the ideological cohort she associates with.
The ensuing deluge proved ferocious. By pointing out the public statements made by an adult in his own name, and suggesting they should be harmful to his reputation, Brown was now an enemy of the First Amendment, a “Social Justice Warrior,” to use the contemporary argot, a hypocrite who does not believe in the values of free expression. She “doxxed” an innocent private citizen for making a silly joke. All this is, as the kids say, poppycock.
Freedom does not mean freedom from consequences. The late economist James Buchanan pointed out that it is precisely the consequences of freedom that make it a tough sell in some quarters – in a cold, cruel world, paternalism can seem appealing. Those who advocate for a robust and open public square do so not because all ideas are equally valid, but because exposure to intellectual competition provides the surest avenue to sort the good from the bad. That is, we do so precisely to discover which ideas are terrible, and to declare them so. To oppose criticism of bad ideas is not to protect the marginalized, it is to oppose the very premise of free inquiry.
Contemporary media requires us to rethink the ethic of our public discourse: when should the pseudonymous be exposed, when should the public buffoonery of individuals be made an example of. Should someone lose their job over a tweet? In writing this post, I chose not to name the fool with the BLT fetish – not because I disapprove of Brown’s actions, but because I believe what lesson could be taught by such public shaming has already been accomplished.
The question of anonymity in public discourse is challenging enough that it divided the late Justice Scalia from his usual ally Justice Thomas. Democracy, Scalia maintained, requires moral courage: if one cares about a cause, one must find the fortitude to stand up on the soapbox and bear the heckles. Thomas found his analogy in the American founding, where pseudonymous pamphleteering proliferated the ideas that would form a nation: Madison, Hamilton, and Jay published The Federalist under the name “Publius,” their opponents used the name “Brutus;” many of the ideas that ultimately formed our republic come from Cato’s Letters, a similar collection of essays written by a pair of Englishmen (neither of whom was named Cato).
Both Justices are right. Anonymity can be of value in the public discourse, allowing one to propagate challenges to power that might be stifled by the fear of retaliation – as when the NAACP withheld their membership lists from the state of Alabama. But one must always stand ready to be adjudged for one’s actions. The members of the NAACP feared (justifiably) that to be identified to the leaders of 1958 Alabama was to risk not simply social ostracism but violence – in many cases, death. Yet I imagine few of them, if ultimately exposed, would regret or apologize for their association: they were confident in the justness of their cause. And so must we all be prepared to answer for ourselves.
I could not dare claim the courage of a civil rights activist in the face of Jim Crow, but I write this post in my own name, and perhaps someone will take umbrage with it. My Twitter account remains pseudonymous, but only by force of habit – it would not take Hercule Poirot to notice it is publicly linked from my author bio here at LDB. I wipe my twitter feed periodically, as a matter of personal hygiene, but I imagine more or less everything I’ve written remains out there somewhere. Inevitably, few of us could survive being judged by our worst moments, and we should make allowances for incidents of youthful foolishness. But if the time comes, I will stand and answer for that which I’ve said, just as one day perhaps I will stand before St. Peter and answer for my atheism.
I’ll let Libertarian Hulk get the last word: