Anonymity. It’s common on the internet of course. I recently had an interesting exchange of views about it with an anonymous blogger who uses the pseudonym “jonolan”. He is articulate and his comments usually reflect intelligent analysis, albeit they are often laced with bigotry and defiant or derisive scorn. The exchange occurred on a liberal blog where jonolan had used the pejorative, “queer”, in discussing the issue of gay marriage. It went like this, where I said:

“Your comments are usually thoughtful and might be taken seriously by more people if you toned down the rhetoric, and even more if you abandoned the anonymity that enables it. (But that would take the fun out of it, wouldn’t it?)”

And jonolan replied (with a smiley emoticon),

“My face in the gravatar wouldn’t make a difference and anyone with a lick of skill could pull up my name – my handle is a concatenation of it – and location. Anonymity is myth. I know; part of my job for years has been tracking various sorts of people online.”

That’s a copout of course, and rationalization. While he’s right that an online identity can be traced with sufficient effort and expertise, such anonymity is likely to be effective in concealing one’s persona from family, friends and co-workers. While I respect his right to privacy I nonetheless think his method is bad for discourse, the principal missing element of that being civility. When opinions differ, at least in my experience, there is hope for resolution only when the parties show respect for one another despite those differences. He either doesn’t understand this or, more likely, declines to understand it.  He continued the discussion by saying,

“As for “bigoted nomenclature” – Being straight, no matter what nomenclature I used, someone would claim it was bigoted, and “queer” is a word that many of them use to describe themselves and each other…and it’s short and easy to spell.

“Face it, there is NO “safe” descriptor for queers. Even the psych term, “homosexual” will get you whined at by some of them. Hence, I don’t bother to worry about it much.”

This left me wondering whether jonolan considers the pejorative n-word in the same category as “queer”. After all,  even some black comics such as Richard Pryor have used it in their routines.  But to the broader point here, his anonymity frees him from having to take social responsibility for his controversial opinions.  That, in my opinion, is disrespectful to people whose opinions differ from his.

English: Trailer title shot for Alfred Hitchco...

English: Trailer title shot for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 Strangers on a Train. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Anonymity has its uses. Criminals use it to avoid justice. The movie, “Strangers on a Train” used it as plot to effect a “perfect” murder. Soldiers have used the nom de guerre to avoid retribution and authors use nom de plume’s to foster a dissembling persona and enhance sales of their product. Crowds use it instinctively to riot in celebration of sports victories or to achieve catharsis in defeat. But is it not interesting that diplomats, having no anonymity, must employ tact instead? So how about it? I know anonymous online commenters are here to stay, but perhaps they ought to be denied the respect of thoughtful replies since they aren’t willing to risk social accountability for what they say. That is my instinct. What say you, dear reader?

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
This entry was posted in Accountability, anonymity, Culture and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to R-E-S-P-E-C-T

  1. Jim,

    Well, here’s my 2 cents worth for your R-E-S-P-E-C-T. At first reading, I tended to agree with you. But then I thought about it and a couple of issues popped up.

    First, there is the obvious censorship part, which would, of course, have to be self-imposed. There would have to be some generally understood meanings for “social responsibility” and “social accountability.” But I doubt there would be any agreement for what those terms mean. And in any case, except for libel and malice, there wouldn’t be any consequences imposed.

    If I am offended by somebody’s speech, I don’t have to read it or hear it. So I don’t read the Weekly Standard or watch Fox News. But that’s just me. I don’t impose my opinions on anybody. They are free to do what they want to do. In fact, I’m such a big fan of the First Amendment that I’m even troubled by what’s called “hate speech.” Seems to me there’s a slippery slope in there somewhere.

    Then there are all these new communication platforms that weren’t around when you and I were trying to be respectful to our readers – the internet and the social media. As a result, there are the inevitable whackos coming out of the woodwork who are going to expose themselves for the idiots they are. Now I don’t have to respond, but when I do I usually regret it because whatever I say just goes flying right over their heads or they just dig in their heels.

    And then there is that frustration that goes with talking to a brick wall. Somehow, switching to another website or changing the channel seems like a copout.

    In any case, I think George Bernard Shaw said it best, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      That’s a terrific Shaw quote, Herb, and surely nowhere more true than in the blogosphere. But of course, communication actually does happen occasionally. I think.

      You bring up an interesting point by mentioning “social accountability”, a phrase that bubbled up volunteer from my subconscious. By that I had in mind the thing that makes humans civil in everyday interactions, that prevents us from expressing exactly what we think to others in deference to their own feelings. The motivation for tact. Makes me think of the Jim Carrey movie, “Liar, Liar”. I didn’t see it, just the trailer was enough, but the plot was clever – a man who became socially dysfunctional because he was compelled to always blurt out his true opinions. He found out that tact is essential to survival in a tribe.

      Anyway, it seems to me that social accountability is important in blogging too, just as in face-to-face interactions, but only in that it is one of several elements that make them pleasurable. But, I am not contending that pleasure of contact is the only worthy motivation to attempt “communication” (Shaw never quit trying, did he?), and my encounters with jonolan, a.k.a. John Nolan, would seem to be an example. He is invariably contentious but he does do something that makes me want to engage: he pays me the respect of reading what I write enough to understand it, whether he agrees or not. I can tell it by his responses, and that’s what I meant by the title of this post.



    • jonolan says:

      We are still left with no real definition of what “social accountability” or retribution entails on online speech, Jim, and you wonder at the continuance of, at least, prima facie anonymity?

      The same impersonal aspect and ease of action, makes the possibility for retribution as easy as the lack of respect in speech.


      • Jim Wheeler says:

        OK, how’s this?

        Social accountability: Being held accountable for one’s behavior and speech in one’s face-to-face social interactions by their effect on others’ reactions and opinions.

        When you say that anonymity makes retribution for behavior easy, I’m assuming you mean online verbal retribution. (It took me a few minutes to figure that out, but because I respect your ability to think, regardless of agreement, I worked at it rather than dismissing it.) But that’s just the point, isn’t it? Anonymity means never having to face people personally for views expressed at a distance. Some, like Bud Morgan, even call it cowardly. But that aside, John Nolan of Brooklyn, doesn’t the use of your real name give you the least frisson of, well, respect? Eh?


        • jonolan says:

          No, I didn’t say that anonymity makes retribution for behavior easy. I said that the impersonal aspect and ease of action made retribution easy and wasn’t really talking about online verbal retribution.

          Read up on the Twitter Spam Gulag or the similar thing that happens to Facebook accounts, and ask yourself how many people these days try to get people fired from their jobs for speaking in manners that are unpopular. I’ve seen all that happen.


          • Jim Wheeler says:

            Ah so. I wonder how many others misunderstood you. Maybe it’s a generational thing – I cancelled my Facebook page last month because it didn’t feel right to me. Analyzing:

            1. I felt a little exploited because of the ads.
            2. It seemed a little too self-centered after a while, like a celebration of the ego.
            3. Didn’t want to assume distant friends and relatives wanted to see pictures of us, and we of them.
            4. Unease at the thought that friends of friends might be sociopaths or serial killers.

            Interestingly, there was a Facebook episode in the police reports of our daily rag this morning. Two punks, aged 18 and 20 down in Neosho (about 15 minutes south of here) invaded an old lady’s home and stole her cell phone and car. They wanted money too but “she didn’t have any”. The 18-year-old posted a picture on his Facebook with his shiny new red cell phone and the cops, having spotted him in the vicinity before the invasion, nabbed him. I just love dumb criminal stories.


  2. I feel that the pure fact of all this being “virtual” is enough permission for many to forget that they are having a conversation with real people and not the computer screen…not so long ago I had a very uncomfortable ‘conversation’ where neither of us was going anonymous but the tone was not one I would use in a tête a tête, I can’t speak for the other person… I have gotten the sense that we get too used to saying whatever we feel like and letting it loose into the blogoshere where nothingness can do with it as it pleases, however, we forget that sometimes there are people out there reading our rants and that the computer screen will point the finger at us and say, “I didn’t do it, he/she did” . I agree with you, it’s about plain, old, everyday R-E-S-P-E-C-T and ACCOUNTABILITY. Thank you for a thought provoking read, Alexandra


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      @ Alexandra,

      For me also, the issue is about respect. In any online connection I get a qualitative sense of the other person’s sincerity, whether I agree with them or not. There is pleasure in sampling opinion but little in mere verbal jousting, and respect for differing views is indeed a critical element. Thanks for your thoughtful reply.


  3. I like conversing with you Jim and seeing your face. Does that answer your question?


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Well, partly Bruce. The real question though is whether the fact that my real identity is displayed (and it is) makes any difference. Nevertheless, thanks for the sentiment. I always appreciate thoughtful comments from readers like you.


  4. PiedType says:

    I don’t mind the anonymity thing myself. I’ve used the Internet for so many years that I expect to see screen names. It’s the names that appear “real” that seem unusual. But they, too, could be screen names. There are many reasons for not wanting to put one’s real name out on the Internet. What matters is what’s said and how it’s said. Your words will define you for the audience and will determine the responses you get. If you don’t like someone else’s attitude, best to ignore it. They’re likely trolls fishing for responses. Don’t feed the trolls.


  5. Moe says:

    Oh drat, I just lost a lengthy comment here. Stupid me. Anyway, first, thanks for the link Jim.

    Count me as one who’s fine with the annonymity. There’s certainly an old tradition of using psuedonyms in political writings. Hamilton and Madison were the primary authors of The Federalist Papers and they used names like “Publicus”.

    One of the pioneer liberal bloggers, Atrios (with whom I’m sure we’re all acquainted) blogged under that psuedonym for many years until blogging became a career with a big fat paycheck. He said it was necessary to protect his day job, whch at that time was as a Professor of Economics – that’s possibly a common reason.

    That said, this may be the first time I find myself in disagreement with you! How ’bout that.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Civil disagreement is just great with me, Moe, and just so you know, this is not a topic I’m at all hung up on. As far as I’m concerned it’s just about nuance, not some black and white issue. And in your particular case, I not only know and respect you more for knowing your real name, but also because your writing has verisimilitude.

      I just thought it was an interesting topic and jonolan caused me to think about it. And incidentally, there is (surprise, surprise) an interesting page in Wikipedia on “anonymity”. I love that reference and its marvelous availability!


  6. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    I have engaged with anonimity and don’t particularly like it for sure. Seems like someone is “afraid” to put a real name and face behind the written words on the internet. But there is nothing I can do about it except ignore it. Complaining won’t fix the problem, if it is a problem.

    As for “respect”, well respect what I ask? I respect Jim as a person but sure don’t like his views on some subjects. So is it OK to write in rebutal to such views? Rebutal is disagreement of views, I think and that is how I try to focus my rebutals.

    Jim keeps hammering me for “straw man” arguments for example. I don’t take it personally thought I am tempted to do so. He is merely stating his views that my arguments are “lame” or “shallow” or misguided which is OK with me if that is what he thinks. But as well he COULD take it one step farther and explain WHY he disagrees, rather than just saying it is a “straw man argument” and thus implying he needs no further rebutal.

    Respect is a funny thing, to me. No one, an individual, DESERVES respect, or disrespect for that matter. It must be EARNED, one way or the other. (I add that one’s “rights” do deserve respect in America, at least if we agree on “rights”). And to establish respect, well actions are needed, which includes what one writes and the opinons of the reader, not the writer once the written word is “out there” in public.

    Summing up, I respect Jim as a person (for sure we have a shared background that I obviously respect and admire and any man or woman that can weather those storms of life) and his “rights” to write. But that does not require me to respect that which he writes or the opinions or logic used in such writing.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      @ Anson,

      “Respect what” you say? I tried to answer that in my reply to Herb Van Fleet’s comment, but some follow-up seems indicated. You raise the issue of “straw man” arguments and think that is the same as “lame” or “shallow” or “misguided”. That’s not the case and if you paid me (and other bloggers) the respect of trying harder to understand my meaning, of following some “links” and of looking up some definitions, you would know that. Here’s one definition of it:

        Straw man:

      A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresenting an opponent’s position so as to more easily refute it.
      Person A: Sunny days are good.
      Person B: If all days were sunny, we’d never have rain, and without rain, we’d have famine and death. Therefore, you are wrong.
      Problem: B falsely suggested that A said it would be good to have only sunny days, then refuted this misrepresentation rather than refuting A’s actual assertion.

      Another way to define it is that it assumes some currently-unstated position for the other person on the basis of your own categorization of them and then attacks that position. This is something I have seen you do often, usually accompanied by some phrasing like “you liberals” or “people on your side”. When you venture that way you are immediately abandoning discourse for adversarial bantering, and that’s not much fun. At least to me it’s not.

      And, to another point you make, if you contend that I must “earn” your respect at the outset, then why should I advance you any either? If the State Department were to take that tack I think there would be continuous war.


  7. jonolan says:

    Since I’m the subject of this article, I guess I’ll respond.

    One – Anonymity IS is myth. The “sufficient skill” needed to find out who I am is trivial for just about anyone younger than either Jim or I and not much more than trivial – you can Google. right? – for people our age.

    It’s also even more of myth in case since I use the same icon across several social media platforms including Facebook where, instead of jonolan, I use my real name, John Nolan and my whereabouts, Brooklyn, are freely available.

    Two – Were such anonymity not a myth, it’s somewhat arguable that, in these days, it would necessary for the sake of Free Speech and, in some cases other than mine, even the protection of one’s life and liberty.

    Three – Jim, I’m no more and often less civil in less anonymous discourse, especially any form that doesn’t include a send button as a safety. 😉 With me, what you see is what you get – in person or via a blog comment.

    Four – A point toward your opinion! I maintained my old pre-internet screen name when I started blogging to maintain a certain plausible deniability and separation from my job. For the first 5 years of my blogging I worked for FOX and blogging was a technical – in my case – violation of the corporate guidelines that could have been used against me and evidence points to the fact that there were those who would have tried to use that against me.

    Face it, Jim, among the Left, “social accountability” is just a dog-whistle for “we’ll ruin you if we can for speaking what we don’t want to hear.”

    To your snide question – No, I find “nigger” to be somewhat offensive, even more so when I hear them using it to / on / about each other. Then again, I’ve never had a Black Activist get riled up over “Black” or “African-American,” whereas queer activists have complained to me about the use of: queer, gay, and homosexual for various reasons that make absolutely no sense to me.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      For my take on what I meant by “social accountability” John, please see my reply to Herb Van Fleet’s comment. In that context I find it hard to believe you are as contentious and adversarial to friends, family and co-workers as you are in blogging. Nobody wants total truth – and anyway, isn’t that more of a myth than anonymity? As for your take on disparaging nomenclature, if you can’t see the difference between “black” and “queer” I would say you need to apply for a normal supply of human empathy. You clearly missed yours when they were handing it out. 😉


  8. Jim,
    You end with ,

     I know anonymous online commenters are here to stay, but perhaps they ought to be denied the respect of thoughtful replies since they aren’t willing to risk social accountability for what they say. That is my instinct.

    Ah, “instinct.” My instincts are different depending on the nature of the anonymous comments. If they are thoughtful, I don’t instinctively question the anonymity or whether the comments deserve respect. If they are the products of trolls, my instinct is different.

    In other words, my inclination is to respect a real thinker, even an anonymous one, although I confess that when someone puts a name to their comment it makes me more comfortable because it removes the relational asymmetry that can sometimes be a bit off-putting.



  9. henrygmorgan says:

    Jim: I agree with your views on anonymity. While pseudonyms have been used in literature, almost always the audience knew who the author was. Did anyone not know Mark Twain’s real name? I once asked an editor of the Globe why they accepted anonymous comments on their blogs, when they still had blogs. He said that the important point was that the Globe knew who they were. I disagree with that view, and I feel that anyone who refuses to give his name is a coward.

    The word “coward” brings me to the second point and the title of your article, Respect. Even when the author’s name is well-known, we often find a lack of respect in the comments. I remember specifically a few years ago when Geoff Caldwell called you a “coward” in his response to one of your comments. I thought at the time that he was too cowardly to call you that to your face and you were too gentlemanly to pursue the matter, making you, of course, the ultimate winner of that set-to.

    I feel about these kinds of people the same way I feel about chickenhawks; they talk a good game, but stand back when it is time to stand up.
    Good article.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      In some cases, Bud, I agree – the hiding of identity does seem cowardly, especially when it appears to be merely a shield from retribution for adversarial commentary. It occurs to me however that being disingenuous, hubristic and pompous under one’s real name might be just as bad. And, I must admit, I can see some justification for blogging anonymity by public figures who because of their jobs must maintain official tact and balance, people like law enforcement and the judiciary for example. Complicated for sure. Thanks for your always wise comments, Bud.


  10. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    Jim, appropriately in my view, actually raises two issues, anonymity and respect in public communications.

    I don’t like anonymity by and large but it does not bother me enough to really go on a crusade over it. I like Henry’s term “cowardly” in some of those cases, hiding behind anonymity to slam dunk someone.

    But that leave unanswered the subject of “respect”. If I see a stranger on the street, I know of no reason to immediately and without question RESPECT that total stranger, or disrespect him either. In other words I have to get to know him before making such an individual value judgment of an individual. Sure I respect the man’s “rights”, by and large but respect for the man or his views, I simply have know way of knowing whether I should or should not respect his views or actions.

    What this really boils down to, it seems to me, is “heated debate”, “sensitivity”, “common courtesy” and other explanations of how to communicate effectively. I obviously like to use strong words to express strong views. Jim takes offense, sometimes when I do that. To me that is his problem, not mine, unless I really go off the deep end and start cussing or making personal accusations against him.

    Jim chose the term or word RESPECT as his title. Based on reading Jim’s views and comments for several years, I think I understand where he is coming from on that topic. He probably, if he reads my blog “Unbelievable, period” will distain the lack of “respect” allegedly shown by an admiral towards a commanding officer on the bridge of a ship conducting wartime operations.

    To me that is RIDICULOUS to relieve a war time flag officer doing his job, and yes, Jim will probably disagree, as just an example.



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