Sunday, June 07, 2009

Not Acceptable

Ed Whelan recently outed "Obsidian Wings" blogger Publius, publicizing his real name and position. He then went on to defend himself with the following argument:

...Blevins (aka publius) and others seem to assume that I owed some sort of obligation to Blevins not to expose his pseudonymous blogging. I find this assumption baffling. A blogger may choose to blog under a pseudonym for any of various self-serving reasons, from the compelling (e.g., genuine concerns about personal safety) to the respectable to the base. But setting aside the extraordinary circumstances in which the reason to use a pseudonym would be compelling, I don’t see why anyone else has any obligation to respect the blogger’s self-serving decision. And I certainly don’t see why someone who has been smeared by the blogger and frequently had his positions and arguments misrepresented should be expected to do so.

Blevins desired to be unaccountable—irresponsible—for the views he set forth in the blogosphere. He wanted to present one face to his family, friends, and colleagues and another to the blogosphere. That’s understandable but hardly deserving of respect. If he wanted to avoid the risk of being associated publicly with his views, he shouldn’t have blogged. It’s very strange that angry lefties are calling me childish (and much worse) when it’s Blevins who was trying to avoid responsibility for his blogging.

Let us be quite clear: this is not a left/right issue, this is not a liberal/conservative issue. Pseudonymity does not mean lack of accountability or responsibility, any more than blogging under one's own name means the reverse, and the suggestion otherwise is absurd. There are endless myriads of reasons why bloggers might use a pseudonym and Whelan had no knowledge of the reasons underlying Publius's pseudonymity. He was not in a position to determine whether in unveiling publius he would be hurting him more than he himself was hurt by publius's brusque words. (This was rightly noted by Publius's co-blogger, Hilzoy.) Whelan is conveniently forgetting the fact that pseudonymity is pretty fragile on the internet (sufficient persistence or sometimes sheer accident often break it), and that that very fact means that exposers can often hurt the pseudonymous far more than they were hurt. This was certainly the case here; after all, even putting the matter in the terms most favorable to Whelan, all that had happened is that Whelan was criticized harshly and inaccurately by some relative unknown out there whose opinion had no more force and weight than had accumulated under the pseudonym. And by escalating the matter to this extent, Whelan acted vengefully and recklessly, and therefore irresponsibly. With arguments like this, it is Whelan who is trying to wiggle out of being accountable here.

The issue is likewise not a matter of obligation 'not to expose a pseudonymous blogger'; the moral obligations are pretty much what they always are when dealing with people, and it is those that Whelan broke -- and 'he did it first' is no more an excuse here than on the elementary school playground. He also showed extraordinarily bad taste as a blogger by doing this, and a complete disregard for the benefits many of us in the blogosphere receive, even those of us who are not pseudonymous, by the maintenance of polite conventions to protect pseudonymity. Many people who first venture out into the blogosphere do so under the cover of pseudonymity, even if they later blog under their own name. There are good pseudonymous bloggers who really are in positions that make it so that they would not blog at all if they had no such protection. If those protections don't exist, if we do not protect the pseudonymity of others, that contributes to an atmosphere of hostility in the blogosphere, many good bloggers will be lost, and we will all be the poorer. (Jonathan Adler makes this point well at "The Volokh Conspiracy".) There are pseudonymous bloggers whose identities I'm pretty sure of, for one reason or another; but even if there were a serious falling out, I guarantee you that I would never, under any circumstances, expose their identity, precisely because of all the other pseudonymous bloggers with whom I have not had a falling out.

I was never much of a reader of Publius; I usually would read "Obsidian Wings," on the irregular occasions I did so, for Hilzoy's posts. I never really liked much of what Publius wrote. But Whelan should be ashamed of himself; even if he broke no obligations to Publius, he did violate common decency, and should be called on it.

UPDATE: Whelan still doesn't get it:

But if the supposed ethics of the Internet treat a blogger’s smears and misrepresentations as par for the course yet condemn someone who accurately identifies a blogger who is using the cover of a pseudonym to engage in those smears and misrepresentations, then I don’t accept those rules.

This is overlooking the fact that the one is not a proportionate response to the other; that Whelan had many other options available to him; and that Whelan was in no position to be able to say why pseudonymity had been chosen in the first place. This is not a matter of arbitrary rules one can accept or not accept; the action was not a rational response to the situation, and it has the potential to harm many, many more people than Publius alone.

UPDATE II: Whelan has now apologized for being uncharitable; good on him for at least doing that -- there are people who would not have, but only have become further entrenched in their position.

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