A More Pertinent Challenge to Anonymous Voices

We’ve just been through an extensive discussion about a single offhand remark, made privately to Rabbi Adlerstein, concerning a single comment on a single website, read uncharitably, from which we then extrapolate an entire “train of thought” which, with no further evidence, we are to assume is endemic to the charedi community — and whether that Torah personality’s offhand remark should have been made publicly, and further, whether the failure to make said remark publicly reflects a fear of Gedolim to speak their minds. The best reaction to this was probably that of the writer using the moniker kman: “Maybe it’s just me, but we have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

Having just quoted someone who contributed using a moniker, I’m going to criticize the practice. There is a discussion about anonymity that is long overdue, but that one wasn’t it.

Put succinctly, I think the use of pen names has reduced the overall quality of comments and level of dialogue of this journal. This is not universally true, but I believe that if one weighs the cost and benefit, anonymous comments have done more harm than good.

A few months ago, I prevailed upon Eytan Kobre to start contributing again. He told me that the consistent negativity of the comments was, in fact, the reason why he found Cross-Currents a less than ideal outlet for his thoughts. He didn’t want to close the door on comments, as Rabbi Shafran does, or completely ignore them like Rabbi Rosenblum. So the appropriate way to avoid “snarky” comments was not to post at all.

I encouraged him to try an alternative: to post, but with the condition that any comments not be anonymous. And lo and behold, a productive discussion ensued.

Actually, that’s not quite true. One of our moderators didn’t get the memo, and allowed through a pair of anonymous comments — and Eytan noted that he’d gotten snarky comments again. But when those two comments were “unapproved,” all was well. There was a perfect correlation between anonymous and obnoxious; get rid of one, and no further efforts were required to rid ourselves of the other.

Something similar happened with one of my own posts. I received a brief, disrespectful, snarky comment that said obviously I feel X… when, had the poor fellow read the previous comments, he’d have seen me clearly state the opposite. And from the real email address accompanying the fake name, the author was a medical doctor, who’d clearly have been embarrassed to have his name and reputation associated with an obvious lack of reading comprehension. Rather than waste 15 minutes explaining that the sun rises in the east, I trashed the comment. The same “contribution” that reflected insufficient grasp of the material carried with it all the “snark” in the comment thread when it left.

Coincidentally (though of course, nothing is coincidence), shortly after composing my initial draft of this post, I received the latest issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, containing an article about the Daily Princetonian‘s debate about this very subject. University President Shirley Tilghman wrote the following in a letter to the editor:

Anonymity invites candor, to be sure, but it also invites thoughtlessness, not to mention malice and spite. In an academic community like ours, anonymous comments strike me as entirely out of place. The Honor Code demands that students ‘own their words’ in their academic work.

The counterargument expressed by the graduating former editor-in-chief (besides the inappropriate assertion that Tilghman’s letter was an “attempt to limit the paper’s freedom”) pointed out that professors may risk their jobs by commenting, alumni “have careers and public images that they might not want tied to their opinions on the University,” and students “know every person involved in most of the paper’s articles.” But a Professor (of Journalism) expressed distate with the “bullying and the crudeness and the trolls,” while acknowledging that anonymity helps in some contexts.

Note that it was the students who advocated for (and, it being the student paper, ultimately decided in favor of) retaining anonymous comments, while the more mature voices were more troubled by the negative effects. Just saying. But it is possible to be more discerning, because anonymous comments fall into perhaps three general categories, and it’s usually not difficult to distinguish between them:

Sometimes a person is sharing a personal story which they do not wish to share under their own name. There is an autobiographical serial right now in Ami Magazine from someone who survived a brain tumor, to cite one example. He undoubtedly does not wish to be defined by his illness, rather than as a Rebbe and social worker. Similarly, people often share stories of kindness done to them, but don’t want to be identified as the recipients. This is all understandable and welcome.

A second category comprises those who want to offer an opinion, but don’t want that opinion to affect them professionally — similar to the professors and alumni commenting to “The Prince.” We have, by this time, received requests from former commenters who, having moved into the professional world, no longer want their professional reputation colored by their youthful opinions. I think this is similarly understandable.

It is the third category that is insidious and harmful. These are the armchair critics, those who wish not merely to state their own opinion, but to criticize others, yet to do so from behind an anonymous pen name. As I said in a comment several days ago, anonymity shields these writers from self-reflection, humility, and careful judgment.

It also permits them to engage in behavior which is, in a word, impermissible. We have something much stronger than Princeton’s Honor Code that must govern how we speak and write, and how we sign our names makes no difference. In just a few more decades, no longer than a century for almost all writers, we will have to answer for pain and embarrassment caused to others. Anonymity will be no excuse, and even worse, the anonymous writer might be unwilling to shed that anonymity in order to beg forgiveness in this lifetime. Halbonas Panim is akin to murder, and anonymity is all too often an accessory to the crime.

As a (named) commenter said recently, explaining why he sometimes will comment anonymously, “I find I have to worry a lot less about my language choice, whether someone will be offended.” That, of course, is exactly the point. You should be thinking about the tenor of your words, of whether you are, in fact, being offensive. Disagreement is fine, but civility is the overriding issue, and the anonymous writer seems vastly more likely to transgress the bounds of civil discourse (and halacha).

This leads me, at least for my own posts, to react to anonymous comments based upon content. If you want to share a personal story anonymously, that’s fine. And if you want to share an idea, a thought, a question, that’s probably fine as well. But if someone criticizes another opinion, a group of Jews, Gedolim, etc., much less belittles another writer or commenter, then that’s using anonymity to “troll,” shielded from the repercussions of whatever nonsense the commenter might happen to spew… and we can strive for better than that. To those who wish to do so, I have but two words of advice: don’t bother. Those are the “contributions” for which the “trash” moderation option was designed, and I believe the overall effect will benefit us if we use it more, not less.

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