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Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Well, it seems that I am outvoted on the issue of anonymity, so I shall withdraw my objections to the practice, and henceforth allow comments on this blog regardless of tone or content.  But before I drop the subject completely, I would like to say a bit more about it by way of explanation.  I think we may have here a generational conflict of the sort that often happens.
For much of my life, I was a tenured professor, protected both with regard to my job and my salary regardless of what views I might express.  I was awarded tenure by Columbia University in 1964, and from then until I retired in 2008, I was tenured at one university or another.  I enjoyed great freedom to teach what and as I wished, and was rewarded with steadily rising salaries.   To be sure, there were occasions on which my political opinions cost me jobs.  The Presidents of Hunter College, Brandeis University, and Boston University vetoed job offers that at the time I very much wanted to accept, because of my politics, but I still had a secure job with tenure, so it was easy for me to say that the loss was theirs rather than mine.
But I have not always been a tenured professor, though it may seem that way.  In 1951, when I stood up and argued aggressively with a senior professor in a course on Hume's Treatise, I was a seventeen year old sophomore, aware that my pugnaciousness could affect my academic career.  Later that year, I wrote a letter to the college newspaper calling on the President of the university to resign because of his stated unwillingness to hire members of the Communist Party as professors.  As a very junior Instructor, I took unpopular political positions publically, earning me the enmity of powerful and important people in the Harvard community.  Shortly thereafter, as an untenured Assistant Professor at Chicago, I joined with more senior colleagues in an attack on the University President over his support for discriminatory rental policies in college owned housing.
On these and many other occasions, my principal concern was that I be heard, and that it be known that it was I who was giving voice to the opinions.  A suggestion to express those opinions anonymously would have struck me as incomprehensible.  Indeed, that would have defeated the purpose of the expression.
These days, the public expression of one's opinions is virtually free and easily available to all.  This blog exists courtesy of Google, which charges me nothing.  Even, where I post my essays, tutorials, and other materials, is free [although there is a deluxe version that costs something.]  FaceBook and Twitter are also free, I gather, though I do not use either [limit myself to 140 characters?  Please!]
And yet, the practice of anonymous public expression seems to have metastisized into a cultural norm.  Now, I have read enough Anthropology to be aware of the great variety in cultural norms, so I think I must put this entire disagreement down to yet another old man grumpily complaining about the strange behavior of young folks.
So be it.  Comment away!


Marinus said...

A very serious response to a trifling bit of internet nonsense. Our friend Arka is a troll, or behaviourally indistinct from one (the term comes from 'trolling', where you try to catch fish by dragging a line through an area you know some are present and try to entice one to bite). It's a behaviour which is nurtured by attention, so the appropriate response is to ignore it: as the slogan goes, Don't Feed the Troll.

Utopian Yuri said...

It's your blog. There's nothing wrong with banishing anonymous people, obnoxious people, or anonymous obnoxious people.

Rob said...

I like some of what High Arka said in her last post. I would agree that most of what she says tends to be ego-driven and relating more to herself than the idea at hand. The idea of anonymity in itself is that is valuable at times, for example in a totaliarian state. Equating such a place to this blog makes less sense to me. On the whole, if Marinus is right about the attention requirements of trolls then HA must be enjoying this opportunity to vent.

On another topic, has anyone read Penguin Island by Anatole France. Maybe it is one of the great satires? I have an 82 year old philoropher uncle who I have just started a corespondence with and he has sent me the book along with Voltaire;s Candide - which was great.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Penguin Island is indeed a delight. I read it, believe it or not, one evening as an undergraduate while babysitting -- a job I took to make money so that I could visit Susie at Connecticut College for Women [as it was then called]. I found it on the shelves in the house in which I was babysitting.

JR said...

Professor Bob --
What would your comfort level be regarding comments that were anonymous but always polite? Is it "anonymity" or "snarky anonymity" that you really object to? Just asking. I can't quite tell.
Rudeness, masked or unmasked, is grating, of course. And unmitigated politeness needs no mask. Yet many a literary plot is driven by an anonymous love letter and the motive behind anonmyity is not always treacherous. HA quite obviously is a tiresome twit, and on this site I find it hard to imagine a "need" for anonymity, but on other sites, in other circumstances --. Perhaps?

Don Schneier said...

Mill's defense of 'free speech' on Utilitarian grounds suggests that what he was trying to protect was expressions of opinion regarding public matters, not ad hominem venting. Similarly, a 'defense of anarchism' might apply to only rational agents. So, the upholding of critical standards need not be confused with the suppression of dissidence.

J.R. said...

Losing one's job due to taking a principled stand is one thing, having one's courses cut back, or one's contract not renewed because of a silly blog post dashed off in five minutes and archived for eternity by Google is another thing entirely.

The current situation in the humanities has created a vast academic precariat. We are justly a bit paranoid, and tend to like not having to diclose our full names. So, thank you.

(I am not the JR above, by the way.)

GTChristie said...

In today's work environment, academic or otherwise, employers sometimes consider political, religious and philosophic (etc) opinions of their employees to potentially reflect back on the employer. Sometimes they're just being silly. But many organizations, public and private are highly computer savvy and use the same social media as their employees (Facebook for example), so they're sensitive to the idea that an employee outside of work might express opinions with ramifications for the organization. Many people find it's better to have at least an alternative "screen name" to keep some separation. That is my case, for instance. Allowing anonymity is appropriate and the user should be able to decide how anonymous to be. But that does not obligate you to publish anything from anyone -- ever. Standards of decency and germaneness still apply. You're in charge.

High Arka said...

"Troll" is second-gen internet speak for "Other." Anyone who says unpopular things may be a "troll." Had the internet existed prior to the American Civil War, abolitionists in the south would have been considered "trolls." Slave-owners who debated them would have been unable to justify their way of life in the face of evidence of African-American humanity, intelligence and good character, ergo negroes had to remain nigger Others and abolitionists wacko Others.

Right now, it's popular to accept mass murder as long as a member of Party Y does it, because Party Z is so much (theoretically, if not actually) worse. Therefore, this one must be Othered.

Having at hand a popular, readily-available slur to designate someone as worthless remains an effective way to avoid having to think about the points they make. In the absence of a real name to use for shunning them, classifying them as a "troll" allows you to ignore anything they say and not have to address it. This is why "third party wackos" do not often appear in the official American presidential debates.

Notice how, instead of paying any attention to what this one says, and therefore debating the issues of whether or not it is right to support Barack Obama's many murders in order to (theoretically) prevent a "Republican" from committing a greater number of murders, the discussion has shifted to whether or not this one is worth listening to.

Who needs issues when you have sound bytes? God bless America.

All that said, Dr. Wolff wins a few human quality points for, despite having crossed the boundary of post-deletion, indicating that he is willing to at least let things go up so that his readership at large can ignore them.

Remember: the most effective form of thought control is not to send the stormtroopers directly in. Eventually, even the most troglodytic will resist. Instead, it is more effective and cost-efficient to allow every viewpoint out in the open, but use group consensus to stifle anything deviant as "unserious" or "uncivil." Look how delightedly Marinus revels in ignorance. Educated people would typically claim that it is "ignorant red-staters" who deliberately ignore the facts they don't like. Here, though, Marinus is able to use more sophisticated language to state that he ignores things he doesn't like. Shamelessly and publicly.

The real insanity comes when the individual rationalizes this ignorance in the context of avoiding a discussion about why bombing women and children into rotted bolognese is acceptable. As said before, God bless America.

Rob said...

So I’m reading Penguin Island at the moment. I was delighted by France’s account of the rise of private property:

“Do you see, my son,” he exclaimed, “that madman who with his teeth is biting the nose of the adversary he had overthrown and that other one who is pounding a woman’s head with a huge stone?” “I see them,” said Bulloch. “They are creating law; they are founding property; they are establishing the principles of civilisation, the basis of society, and the foundations of the State.”

And this with God’s sanction, apparently. The book reads like a great parody and satire so far. This part reminds me of Hobbes’ account of property in Leviathan (1651). said...

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