Opinion: Anonymous writing

POSTED: 09/24/12 11:33 AM

We received this very nice letter from an anonymous fan of Today’s opinion page, basically thanking us for our editorials and opinions. Of course, we like compliments, and we’re happy to share them with our readers. Ego never sleeps.

“You are one of the few if not the only journalist that will to take on the establishment,” the letter writer continues (this is addressed to Today’s editor-in-chief, and the author of this piece). “I commend you for that. I unfortunately am not ready to put my name down. I understand your policy on anonymous letters and can appreciate that as well.” (Today in general does not publish anonymous letters).

But this anonymous letter writer had something to say: he begs to differ – which is just fine by us. After all, an opinion is just that – an opinion. He sent us the following manifesto from the internet that we publish verbatim, without any funny remarks in between. It stems from the website zerohedge.com and it is, so to speak, a love song for anonymity. Here goes:

Our mission: to widen the scope of financial, economic and political information available to the professional investing public; to skeptically examine and, where necessary, attack the flaccid institution that financial journalism has become; to liberate oppressed knowledge; to provide analysis uninhibited by political constraint; to facilitate information’s unending quest for freedom.

Our method: pseudonymous speech…… Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the bill of rights and of the first amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation– and their ideas from suppression– at the hand of an intolerant society.

…responsibly used. The right to remain anonymous may be abused when it shields fraudulent conduct. But political speech by its nature will sometimes have unpalatable consequences, and, in general, our society accords greater weight to the value of free speech than to the dangers of its misuse. (McIntyre v. Ohio elections commission 514 U.S. 334 (1995) Justice Stevens writing for the majority).

Though often maligned (typically by those frustrated by an inability to engage in ad hominem attacks) anonymous speech has a long and storied history in the United States. Used by the likes of Mark Twain (aka Samuel Langhorne Clemens) to criticize common ignorance, and perhaps most famously by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay (aka Publius) to write the federalist papers, we think ourselves in good company in using one or another nom de plume. Particularly in light of an emerging trend against vocalizing public dissent in the United States, we believe in the critical importance of anonymity and its role in dissident speech. Like the Economist Magazine, we also believe that keeping authorship anonymous moves the focus of discussion to the content of speech and away from the speaker – as it should be. We believe not only that you should be comfortable with anonymous speech in such an environment, but that you should be suspicious of any speech that isn’t.”

So far the anonymity love-song on zerohefge.com. Does it make sense? Well, as the anonymous writer did, we also beg to differ. That is because freedom of speech is a fundamental human right. And why be suspicious of speech that is not anonymous?

Though zerohedge.com does not explain this we could come up with some reasons why they feel this way. People who link their name to an opinion usually have an agenda. Think George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, but also Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. But what sets these people apart from those who wish to vent their opinions anonymously? Don’t they have an agenda? They must have, otherwise they would not bother writing.

Our problem with anonymous writers is that we don’t know who they are, and therefore it is impossible to assess their motives. The theory is that readers will focus on the content of anonymous speech. But we would torture our brains with the question: who is writing this stuff?

Take for instance the ruckus surrounding the Innocence of Muslims video. Anybody could condemn that video (if not for content, then certainly for the world record in bad acting), but it becomes really interesting when, as happened last week, the president of the European Union voices such an opinion. You know immediately: this guy has an agenda, and it is obvious what it is. Has he voiced this opinion anonymously, nobody would have paid attention.

Let’s consider the controversy surrounding the St. Maarten Medical Center. That is a topic where everybody has an agenda. The Minister, the hospital director, the guys who want to set up a center for medical tourism, the unions – you name it. What is the point of hearing opinions from any of these sources if they are anonymous? It just does not make sense to us.

So what rests is the reason for wanting to express opinions anonymously. We know what that reason is. It’s a four-letter word and we feel free to write it down here because it is fear.

Now we are getting somewhere (at least, in our opinion). The core question is why anybody should be afraid to express her or his opinion. In some societies expressing an opinion could result in death. But, let’s be realistic here: not expressing an opinion in such societies could also result in death. Not expressing one’s opinion is then giving in to the oppressor.

In communities like the one we live in, opinions could also have repercussions, we’re not blind to that fact. But the point is that people always have choices: to stand up or to lie down, in this case. By giving in to fear (and wanting to express opinion anonymously) the people who do this are giving away their power. By publishing opinions anonymously, parties that would rather not see such opinions made public, have already won half the battle.

When Salman Rushdie wrote his Satanic Verses in 1989 and the late Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him, Rushdie’s first thought was (as we learned from his recently published biography): I am a dead man. But look here: Khomeini is dead and the millions of followers he thought he had have for some reason not managed to execute the fatwa.

Has Rushdie published his book anonymously, the world would not look up at him today the way it does. He is the ultimate symbol for freedom of expression – and we are not able to stand in his shadow. But the least we are able to do is to publish our name if we publish an opinion, or if we write a letter to the editor.

While it is quite visible at the top of this page it is no trouble to repeat the author’s name for this piece: Hilbert Haar, Editor-in-Chief @ Today. Do keep in mind: this is an opinion and there is no obligation to agree with it.

 

N.B.

Yesterday afternoon somebody shoved a brown envelope under the door of our office. It was not even addressed to anybody, it just screamed Attention!!! Inside was a single sheet of paper from one of those concerned citizens. The frustration dripped from the page. Apparently, this concerned citizen had applied for a job somewhere (we’re not so daft to give the name of the business here) and he was told that there was no opening. Saturday he spotted somebody else working there who, in his opinion belonged in an establishment of questionable reputation. That’s not the kind of letters we encourage people to write, and we just mention it here as an example of how anonymous writing sometimes leads absolutely nowhere.

 

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