Anonymity comes at the expense of reasonable discourse

Illustration by Zoë Collier

Illustration by Zoë Collier

We need to talk about anonymity.

Earlier this year, I downloaded Yik Yak to keep an eye on what students at UVic were talking about (newspaper editors need to stay in the loop), and, for the most part it’s been fruitful. I can’t say I’ve found any hot news tips there, but I have learned that UVic students are quite clueless about, well, a lot of things — not the least of which is what’s going on with their student union.

This ignorance was amplified during student elections, but what’s frightening is how it was twisted into a very ugly form of discrimination. Unite candidates, Woke candidates, advocacy groups — all were targets of a verminous subset of the UVic population. And make no mistake here: these are UVic students we’re talking about, and they’re walking among us more polite folk with impunity. (Where’s “Rowdy” Roddy Piper with the magic glasses when you need him?) Reading what they had to say made me want to pour bleach in my ears.

And that’s the problem: anonymity via social media and the internet at large have allowed disgusting rhetoric to fester unchecked. This is not a new issue. But speaking out about it feels approximately as effective as throwing a bouncy ball at a brick wall hoping the wall will fall down. It won’t. But what other recourse is there? Another thinkpiece?! (Yes, for now.)

Anonymity via social media and the internet at large have allowed disgusting rhetoric to fester unchecked.

Both UVSS Director of External Relations Kenya Rogers and Chairperson Brontё Renwick-Shields spoke out at the lead director’s debate on March 1 against people  spewing this harmful rhetoric under the guise of freedom of speech. Contrary to what those on Yik Yak and Facebook may think, Rogers was not saying free speech itself was a problem; rather, I interpreted her as saying that the entire discussion privileges those who have the loudest voice anyway. In other words, the students who say their right to free speech is being trampled are usually saying that in response to someone who’s rights actually are being trampled (like marginalized students). Again, this is nothing new, but it’s worth repeating.

Anonymity exacerbates this problem. Not only are these people speaking over marginalized voices, but they’re doing so without any risk of repurcussions. (Hell, there’s nothing stopping them from appropriating marginalized identities either.) You can’t do much about a troll on Yik Yak, Reddit, or any platform allowing individuals to hide behind an alias.

That’s not to say anonymity has no value. When it comes to protecting an individual from real harm, such as reporting sexual assault cases, then, yes, your identity should be kept hidden. When you’re in a minority position in society, already being ostracized simply for existing, rather than for blathering idiotic statements which people rightfully denounce you for, then anonymity is understandable.

But anonymity, besides being a word I can never spell right the first time, is wielded as a weapon by those who really don’t need it, often against those who need it more. And if you’re hiding behind a curtain like some cretinous low-rent Wizard of Oz while taking potshots at those who have no way of fighting back, you’re not allowing for a rich and fruitful discourse.

You’re just a coward.

8 Comments

Avatar xorxor

I don’t think that this article is against free speech. It doesn’t imply anywhere that anyone should be censored. All it says is

1. The people at UVic that use “I have free speech” in order to defend what they are saying online aren’t usually saying that because their free speech rights are being trampled.
2. People that use anonymity to insult other students are having a net negative impact on conversation.
3. As a decent person, you should not use your free speech to insult others on an anonymous platform.

It does not say

1. Free speech is less important than the feelings of others.
2. Anonymity is bad, and anonymous free speech should be banned.
3. People that have controversial opinions should be censored.

Avatar Caek

I’m not sure you read it very closely then because the author refers to repercussions and sanctions against the wrong sort of speech at several points in the article. Example:

“anonymity via social media and the internet at large have allowed disgusting rhetoric to fester unchecked.” Meaning that we need to do something to check said “disgusting rhetoric”. Whatever that means. Myles couldn’t even be bothered to provide an example of what he considers “disgusting rhetoric” much less what sanctions he’d propose.

More examples:

“Anonymity exacerbates this problem. Not only are these people speaking over marginalized voices, but they’re doing so without any risk of repurcussions.”

He says pretty clearly that he’d like to be able to punish people for the offense of “speaking over marginalized voices.” Again, no effort at a definition is put forth nor are any examples provided. Perhaps our Editor-in-Chief forgot to put much thought behind it, just as he forgot to edit this piece for spelling errors. Or maybe he couldn’t find a way to explain his position without coming across as pro-censorship.

“And make no mistake here: these are UVic students we’re talking about, and they’re walking among us more polite folk with impunity.”

The message here is pretty clear: I want to know who you are so I can see you punished for what you believe.

Avatar The Martlet

Hi Caek. Aside from a missed period in the first sentence, we’re not sure which spelling errors you’re referring to. If you could point them out, we’d appreciate it.

Avatar Will Grey

To summarize: “Here at The Martlet we believe in the principle of the ‘freedom of speech’… that is to say your freedom of speech will remain intact provided we know who you are, where you live, and have a description of you so that we can leverage appropriate repercussions if we perceive that you are speaking over ‘marginalized’ voices and/or using rhetoric we consider harmful.”

Dear Martlet Editors: The Freedom of speech is the right to communicate one’s opinions and ideas without the fear of retaliation or censorship, particularly that of institutions such as government. Its laughable that you’re claiming to be supportive of the freedom of speech, but instantly imply ‘we need to find a way to ‘punish’ speech we don’t agree with’.

The right to freedom of expression is recognized as a human right. It is subject to special duties and responsibilities – meaning that it may therefore be subject to certain restrictions when necessary for (1) respect of the rights or reputation of others or for (2) the protection of national security or of (3) public order (order public), or of (4) public health or (5) morals.

You are not “Pro Free Speech” you are “Pro Free Expression”. You have demonstrated that you believe limitations can be justified under the harm principle (that the actions of individuals should only be limited to reasonably prevent harm to other individuals.)

If you want free speech limitations to prohibit forms of expression where they are considered offensive to society, special interest groups or individuals – you must provide a rational as to why these limitations ought to be in place. Your suggestion that ‘anonymous speech’ ought to be restricted without clear guidelines could lead to major abuse.

Avatar FiniusFigglebottom

Free speech is the foundation of democracy. Words that do not offend do not need protecting. It is sad that the left has turned towards being authoritarian crybabies. If you can’t handle others having different or seemingly offensive beliefs or words it is time to take a good hard look at how old you really are.

Avatar Cameron Mitchell

“appropriating marginalized identities.”

What kind of rhetoric are you trying to push here? Because if it’s anything less than demanding all marginalized people prove their identity as marginalized students to you, I would ask you to both apologize and redact that hypothesis.

Do you expect everyone to keep a list of all the times their race, sexuality, or gender has affected them?

You don’t ask a queer person to prove that they are queer before they speak about their sexuality and your thinly veiled demand for proof from internet users is quite frankly disgusting.

Avatar Amethystic

So you don’t actually oppose anonymity, you just only want it to go to people who you think deserve it. You seem to want to retain anonymity for the use of the oppressed and powerless, but if you are suggesting that we grant and withhold anonymity based on some sort of deliberation process, that means giving someone the power to decide who is “worthy” of anonymity–i.e. someone in a position of power gets to decide who is and isn’t oppressed. Do you really think that a truly oppressed person would be granted protection by a system like that? What if the person in power (as people in power often do) has a vested interest in withholding protection from certain oppressed groups? Should those marginalized people be denied the use of anonymity because they can’t convince those in power that they are deserving of it?

Anonymity is a double-edged sword, and it is true that a lot of people use it to be cruel and disruptive. However, we need to keep in mind that anonymity is a trade-off: by gaining the security of namelessness, you are giving up the power of a concrete name and identity. For some people this is more than a worthwhile trade, because their identity will not protect them or help add credence to their perspectives; for others, it takes away from their message, because they do not have enough confidence in the validity and relevance of their comments to back it up with openness and accountability. Yes, people are more likely to say nasty things when they are anonymous, but we are also much less likely to take them seriously. There is a reason we use the word “troll” as a dismissive label, after all.

In short, people use anonymity for good as well as for evil, but I think the positive effects of allowing everyone to use it as a tool outweighs the unfortunate side-effects. If we want free speech for ourselves and for those we feel deserve it, we have to extend the same freedom to everyone, even those we find despicable, and this includes the freedom to speak anonymously.

(In other news, I’m still trying to decide if it was fitting or ironic that I ended up posting this under an account that uses a pseudonym…)

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