That’s why we fight so fiercely about the terms we use to refer to ourselves and each other.
Right now I’m struggling with my own name. I dig the Sally Strange moniker. Its scansion is the same as my real name, which is pretty unusual. I used to go by Valkyrie607. Put those two facts together, do a google search on both my online handles, and you could figure out who I am fairly easily, I reckon. And I don’t particularly mind people knowing, but I prefer to keep a digital divide, mostly for purposes of googling. My work involves outreach and communication. Political and religious opinions–upstate New York is plenty religious. Home of Mormonism’s most impossible happenings, and we got our own Catholic saint last year, a Native woman named Kateri Tekakwitha. Religion is an important thing here, like many places–more so than it was in Vermont. Vermont is very atheist-friendly–Vermont is actually the least religious state in the union. More than a third of Vermonters have no faith. It’s nice.
Anyway, I’m rambling. I was talking about my name. Like I said, I prefer to have that separation between my real name and my online persona of Sally Strange. I hear people talking about how it’s anonymity that’s ruining the caliber of discourse on the internet, but I don’t think that’s it. It is really names that make the difference? Part of the reason I’m not using my real name right now is that I wish to avoid harassment, of myself, and of my friends and family. This is such a common occurrence, and it’s obvious that writing about feminist stuff, as I am wont to do, triggers a larger risk of harassment materializing than writing about less controversial subject. Then also, there’s the fact that my current work contract is temporary, and in 11 months’ time I’ll be looking for work again. Coming off like a political agitator/opinionated blogger with a (however tiny) media platform–ehh, maybe not such a great idea when applying for professional office type jobs.
I’d like to use my real name someday. I can envision a life path in which I could do that without risk to potential employment in five years or so. If that’s something that’s sewn up, then I feel like I can handle the rest of it. I can deal with comments and spam email and whatnot. I know when to invoke law enforcement and when not to.
All of this, because I’m starting up my blog again and contemplating going to a convention. Amazing.
This is why Jerry Coyne is wrong: whether it’s cowardice or not, taking negative social repercussions of holding an unpopular view into account is rational. Pseudonymity allows us to hear voices that would get shut out of the conversation by a “real name rule.” Mine, for example, for a few years anyway. You would only get to hear from older Sally, not present day Sally. And you wouldn’t get to hear from Natalie Reed. And there are thousands more like us out there, disproportionately black and brown, and disproportionately female, disproportionately genderqueer and mentally ill and disabled. Because those are all the same factors that confound our ability to access education, to get good jobs, and so on.
And then there’s the fact that it’s just not accurate to say that using real names increases civility. Think about a bar or a club. You own the facility. People come there to drink and party and get frisky with each other. You don’t want fights and you don’t want harassment. What do you do?
a.) Make everybody get a name tag when they pay the cover charge and show their ID. Use the ID to verify their real name. Better yet, make them write their phone number on the name tags too. This will ensure that everyone is accountable and so nobody will be rude or start a fight.
b.) Employ bouncers to keep an eye on the crowd and occasionally eject those who can’t or won’t follow the rules of civility.
I don’t think that real names would be any more effective in a club than it is online. Certainly being on Facebook or Twitter under their real names has not deterred thousands of people from tweeting blatantly offensive bigoted nonsense of all stripes. The “Not Racist But” blog documents this phenomenon with regards to race.
I hope that pseudonymity continues as long as there is a need for it. Right now I need it, more’s the pity. Building a more economically secure, environmentally just world will increase the number of people able to take the risks and responsibility of revealing their real names online. Oops! Hey, wait a minute–it’s almost like everything we do has political influences and consequences. Everyone’s a partisan somehow. Claiming the alleged (not documented) benefit of increased civility is a worthwhile trade-off for decreased participation by people who are likely to already be marginalized in some way is a political statement, and it’s one that seems at odds with the rest of Jerry Coyne’s beliefs to me. I hope he and those who agree with him have really given serious thoughts to what perspectives they might be missing out on. Son of Baldwin, for example. And countless others. Rather than requiring everyone to use real names, and accusing those who don’t of cowardice, let’s work together to create a world where sharing one’s real name online inspires less fear.