The Uses of Pseudonymity

Intelligent public discussion of ideas is difficult in our current situation. A few large media, internally structured as highly authoritarian organizations and wielding global power through their mastery of mid-twentieth century technologies, define The Issues, and almost all of us accept those terms and coerce any ideas we handle into support for one side or another of one issue or another. All ideas reduce to issues, all issues reduce to politics, and politicians are notoriously cynical. The worth of an idea—its relevance, its internal coherence, its boldness, its potential to become real—in such cynical circumstances is reduced to the credibility of the Personality acting as Spokesperson for the idea. The credibility of a personality, the personality of a spokesperson: questionable concepts.

The introduction of pseudonymity into the range of options may help. By separating personality from any particular person, a pseudonym averts ad hominem responses to ideas. In all of our public fora—neighborhood bars, op-ed pages, talk-show stages, the halls of Congress—we can witness thoughtful, well-articulated ideas dismissed or devalued because the articulator is not an anointed expert, or is or is not a member of some particular ethnic group or some particular movement, or does or does not occupy some position of fame or wealth or power. When an idea is presented pseudonymously, that kind of reductionist response is difficult to support or defend. Any response must be to the articulated idea.

Pseudonymous discourse may also help us avoid labelling. Right & Left, Liberal and Reactionary, Management & Labor, have all become shopworn cliché's that have great force for the old warriors at the barricades (read publishers, legislators, network moguls) but little or no relevance to ordinary people's lives or to the real problems that confront us in trying to live together. To the extent that a pseudonym is a label of sorts, it tends to pre-empt labels that others would apply. Again, let's respond to the articulated idea, not to a target pasted over it.

Pseudonymity, I hope and believe, may also encourage the introduction of ideas into the public discourse that are bolder and more innovative than the ideas we receive from our leaders and our pundits. There is enormous pressure to accept established social structures, established categories, established values and priorities, sacred cows. The fact that the established system is not working very well at all does not reduce the pressure; in fact, that failure increases the pressure, because support for the establishment can no longer be persuaded by reason or demonstration and must, therefore, be coerced by authority.

Ideas that question established foundations are subversive, and the system has ways of protecting itself against subversion. Ideas that radically oppose the assumptions or conclusions of establishment thinking, or that assert the malfunction or malfeasance of established institutions or established authorities, or that refuse to accept the established bounds of argument: no matter how persuaded one might be of the truth and utility of such an idea, no matter how convincing an argument might be made in its support, it is still well, in our society, for the holder of that idea to be cautious. I am not a conspiracy theorist by any means, but I have seen people whose careers languished or whose opportunities dried up, in part at least because they were too public with their radical notions. It's not a matter of punishment; it's just that such people don't feel like team players. Those who flourish in the system tend to be people who, if they entertain radical notions, have learned to keep those close and to discuss them only in less public venues.

A pseudonym can give such a person a chance to test an idea in a public forum, to defend it, modify it, monitor the response it generates, with a reduced risk of punitive or retributive consequences if the idea is perceived as dangerous or subversive.

For all of those reasons—to prevent ad hominem responses, labelling, and other forms of reductionist argument, to encourage bold and innovative thinking, and to protect those who do express bold or unconventional ideas—I encourage the citizens of cyberspace to adopt and defend pseudonyms, as I have adopted and will defend LOS.

los home page
midget picture