Chronologically advanced readers will recall that during the 1980s, I was known to submit an occasional “letter to the editor” to the New Albany Tribune.
To put it mildly.
One of these days, I’ll dip into the bulging banker’s box and unearth fragments of the archive, but for now, just one example will suffice to make the point.
After writing a letter to the Tribune in opposition to one or another of Ronald Reagan’s reactionary conservative excesses, I received a small envelope in the mail. There was no return address of any sort, only a New Albany postmark, and those being the days before one became accustomed to shaking suspicious envelopes for white powder or similar residue, I shrugged and opened it.
The crude, palsied, superannuated handwriting on a small rectangle of spiral notebook paper was brief and to the point:
Jesse the Revolutionary
Or Killer Kennedy
Who is your choice?
The note wasn’t signed.
And so it was that two decades before blogging, the first anonymous response arrived to brighten my day. It strengthened my belief – as it does today – that anonymity is a fundamentally malicious affliction undertaken by the chronically dysfunctional to exact vengeance on those who they envy for having the integrity to stand behind their words, thoughts and opinions.
Obviously, it was during those halcyon days that I first developed my severe allergy to the frequent abuses of anonymity, as manifested by the note I’ve described, but a feeling of disgust quite intensified by the Tribune’s willingness at the time to print anonymous missives.
Whatever small role I may have played in subsequently convincing the publisher to reverse the newspaper’s longstanding policy and to require the identities of writers to be revealed is a source of great personal satisfaction to me.
It’s worth remembering that the front office’s policy change came against the strenuous objections of then-editor Eddie LaDuke, himself the embodiment of the Peter Principle, who defended anonymity in much the same manner as some continue to do today (paraphrasing):
There are numerous times when adults seek to sacrifice personal integrity for the short-term satisfaction of venting of intemperance, and there are comparatively rare instances when legitimate concerns like whistle-blowing preclude disclosure of identity, and so the illegitimate former must somehow be tolerated to provide for the infrequency of the legitimate latter.
To put it bluntly, there’s nothing more patronizing than for an adult to be coddled in this manner by being informed, in effect, that he or she isn’t sufficiently sophisticated to understand the rights and responsibilities of free speech, and therefore should be permitted to spray anonymous attacks like diarrhea in the general direction of misunderstood ideas and detested real people.
It is pandering to an extreme degree, as it precludes the very real possibility that even set-in-their-ways adults can learn if provided with information and the tools of instruction, and while fears of reprisal are understood in the context of criminal informants and legitimate whistle-blowers, the vast majority of anonymous letter writers and today’s masked blog commentators have no such concern, and rather are exercising their desire to “speak out loud” without acknowledging the proper and responsible channels for doing so.
As the wag once said, we already have a Bill of Rights – now we need a Bill of Responsibilities. Free speech is a right, and it implies a responsibility, although sometime politics stands squarely in the way of understanding these points.