The comment thread under my recent column in The Union’s online edition started out normally – with the usual acrimony, vitriol, and inanities - and then morphed into a disjointed discussion on ‘handles’ and ‘sackheads’ and privacy, and even “public safety”. It brought to a head something that I have been thinking about for some time, but I should first back up.
All of us who surf the internet’s blogs, columns, and information sites have run into comment threads that are full of the most disagreeable diatribes launched by commenters at each other. They hurl such ad hominem insults from behind the anonymity of ‘handles’ which are short character strings that may mean something to them, but little besides a temporary marker to anyone else. One is not even sure of how many people are really participating, since a single person may enter the fray using several handles.
The common denominator of such scattershot threads is that they seldom stay on topic, exhibit inabilities to accurately read let alone understand the written word, are absent of reasonable development, invariably illuminate nothing, and lead nowhere. But given their number and frequency, they must provide some type of release not available elsewhere.
This month I decided to experiment and respond to some of the comments that actually attempted to address the volatile topic of public sector unions which was the thrust of my column. My thought was that readers might like to expand on what I had presented. It turned out that polite replies actually made some progress in transiting from the ad hominem to the substance of the article. In this exchange I lamented on the use of handles and said –
Using a handle is the literary equivalent of speaking in public while wearing a paper sack with two eye holes. It is a disguise worn for many reasons, and for certain kinds of discourse, it is the only acceptable way to present yourself and your views. I think that those of us, who under their own names openly offer their commentary in a public forum, should be perfectly at ease with the self-assessments that responding sackheads offer. They certainly know best which messages should not be traceable to the messenger. Who are we then to disagree?
And then I did a no-no in response to a sackhead’s comment accusing me of “hypocrisy” since I still “allow” some RR commenters to use handles. His proclaimed coup on me (and my friend Russ Steele) reads –
But guess what folks, if you visit Rebane's or Steels's blog sites, the ones that they promote here in their Union "columns" you see that both allow unnamed comments on their blogs. Since it was the writer of this column that posted about this issue and staked out this ground and since below Steele posted that folks using an "identity" are "weak, unable to face the public mirror" and since these two guys allow folks to use an "identity" to post on their blogs it looks like a double standard or hypocrisy.
The incomprehensible logic behind this charge is based on the fabricated notion that I argued to prohibit the use of handles, thereby confusing my lament with proscription. But with sack firmly in place, such single-bound leaps across reason are regular fare. The inevitable reward is that sackheads with similar talents and/or motivations immediately jump in with celebratory rejoinders, and congratulations for such brilliant revelations.
In this case I soon received three emails giving the surprising identity of the sackhead. He turned out to be a RR reader of liberal persuasion who comments here often, sometimes voluminously, and of late in a most civil and constructive manner - all freely under his own name. It appears that almost everyone in the community knows the man who dons a sack when commenting in the online Union – it also seemed as if I had a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde on my hands. So in my response, that reported on this bizarre behavior, I paired his handle and name. That turned out to be a big no-no and another surprise.
Apparently The Union considers privacy data to include a person’s name (in addition to contact info, address, SS number, mother’s maiden name, etc that is more universally in such a private dataset). And here I, and others like me, give out our names every day in our daily round, letters to editors and politicians, published articles, phone conversations, and internet comments. I was even admonished by one sackhead that I had violated “public safety”, and possibly put the person I “outed” in danger. I had no idea that I had stumbled into such a tough and fearsome neighborhood where personal security came into question.
And then I began thinking about what makes such neighborhoods so tough that people need a protective sack over their heads before they venture in.
The notion of ‘shadow of the future’ and the old Japanese adage ‘A man need feel no shame outside his village.’ came to mind. In Axelrod’s now classic The Evolution of Cooperation, he demonstrates that our propensity to ‘defect’ on each other is inversely related to what we perceive to be the length of our future relationship.
For me, both of these notions came together years ago when we lived in Germany during my Army active duty. My visiting mother-in-law had returned from a side trip to Switzerland where she had been rudely pummeled by a crowd of Japanese tourists that literally ran her down as she started to board a train. Her previous one-on-one meetings with the highly cultured and painfully polite Japanese had not prepared her for the encounter at the railway station. Even though the Japanese tourists in those years became the poster child for rude public conduct, they did not have a monopoly on such behavior. But such encounters do serve to illustrate Axelrod’s point.
With a sack over your head in a room full of similarly attired, one can let go and step beyond the bounds of civility. This itself may have a therapeutic effect for some people. To capitalize on this effect, I recall reports of a novel establishment that was set up in Manhattan’s financial district during the 1970s, the ‘age of limits’ when we were recovering from the catharsis of the 60s and the just ended Vietnam War. The novel business provided a large, undecorated, yet comfortable room with mats on the floor whereon people would spend an hour or two away from their intense and demanding jobs. Everyone in the room arrived dressed in a large white sack with a weave that provided complete anonymity down to body shape, yet appropriately loose so that the wearer could see out enough to move about.
The physical plant was so configured that you entered the facility through one of several unmarked doors, went into a numbered dressing room, took off any articles of clothing you wished, and donned the provided white enclosure. You left in the reverse manner.
While in the room the occupants could just sit and meditate, or talk in quiet tones with other occupants. It was these intimate conversations which made this unusual business into the reported avant-garde phenom that it was. People would come and express themselves in ways they would never dream of doing were their identities known; here they would share secrets they kept from their closest friends or mates. And they could and would also castigate each other with no remorse or quarter given.
Psychologists and journalists came to study and report on the goings on in the room, and I’m afraid that probably sounded the death knell of this unique business. Who wants to go and spend time with a sack that contains a shrink or a reporter? Soon the room was filled with shrinks and reporters all trying to ferret each other out, and that was that. But those who were there in the early days spoke of a very satisfactory interlude in their lives.
(As an aside, during this time Jo Ann and I decided to try an evening visit with another couple who were close friends, and as deliciously nutty as we. After dinner we donned grocery bags with eye holes and attempted to spend the rest of the evening that way. But that’s another hilarious story.)
So here we are in a world of instant, widespread, and multi-level communications, all made possible by the internet and the smart communication devices we carry. On one side of the spectrum we have the social networks that bind us minute-to-minute, sharing the most detailed experiences with our counterparts, seemingly stretching indefinitely our futures together. And on the other end, we have sackheads who can randomly come together here and there, and leave with no thought to building or maintaining any relationship. These latter initiate and abandon exchanges (not necessarily conversations) of the sort they would never have were they to reveal any information that would make them accountable for their words, accountable in a way that would create even a smidgeon of a shadow.
And today these serendipitous sackhead communities thrive along side those communicants who use their real names and, for good or ill, take traceable ownership of the thoughts and ideas they contribute. 'I am John Jones, and I stand by what I say, so build on it or correct me. But I am willing to take the risk to make my words endure, and thereby forge an indelible link to them that you can follow tomorrow and the day after. In this way I honor you by choosing such words with care, for I know that they will become an enduring part of your picture of me.'
Having labored the point, perhaps too much, I vote for speaking without the sack. But that does not mean that I will not speak to you wearing yours.
Perhaps that choice makes me an odd bird today. But I believe that in this environment of American “dumbth” it is more important than ever to start and take ownership of reasoned conversations. The rancor we accumulate, as we fling anonymous insults, irrationalities, innuendoes, along with outright lies at each other, shakes the foundations of our Republic, because on the internet we can talk to everyone and our words can go on forever.
In a land where the First Amendment is under assault, instead of shouting unseen from behind a rock, as a free people is it not our duty to speak out and be counted? In our responsible exercise of free speech we can make sure that we do not regress into the anonymous propagandists and unknown pamphleteers of colonial America under King George, or more recently Russia under Czar Nicholas. The next step down from there is not one we want to suffer.