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On Names

On Names

Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name! I have given you my soul; leave me my name!

— Arthur Miller, The Crucible

The sixth amendment to the Constitution guarantees an accused person the right to face their accuser. This is known as the “confrontation clause,” and in practice, it means that people at least have a right to know who is accusing them, even if they never end up facing them per se. But this concept enshrined in our national founding document was not invented on American soil. Indeed, it is possible the idea predates even the civilizations of Europe, extending back to the age of Mesopotamia.

The preservation of justice in a society is threatened by what is known as the “tragedy of the commons,” the tendency of individuals to free-ride on collective property because it is economically advantageous to do so. There are a number of ways that different societies attempt to deal with this, but among the most common and effective is to give members of that society a stake in the commons. That one’s children may inherit the use of collective property alone may be enough for some people to reject free-riding and abusing the commons for personal gain. What is critical, of course, is that the members of the society be made to have skin in the game.

Among the more important kinds of commons–in conjunction with infrastructure and the environment–is social trust. Defined by PEW as a “belief in the honesty, integrity, and reliability of others,” social trust is a critical, necessary building block for civilization. Civilization requires some stability, and if other people cannot be trusted to act in a predictable (just) manner, then why should you be a chump and let others take advantage of you?

The right to face one’s accuser is perhaps the most critical infusion of skin into the commons game, where social trust is concerned. It creates accountability and incentives which encourage moral behavior and punish immoral behavior.

Now we have the internet, and everything has become a lot more complicated.

The internet represents an intersection of three different rights: freedom of speech, facing one’s accuser, and being left alone. If our rights to privacy and to speak freely are respected, then other people’s right to face their accuser will be lost, should we choose to slander and malign them. If we are held accountable, then our right to be left alone is threatened, should anyone accuse us of slander, or even causing harm. Should restrictions to preempt such predicaments be put into place, then the freedom of speech is imperiled.

This intersection existed, of course, prior to the world-wide web. The general solution was that a degree of each of these freedoms was given up so as to preserve as much as possible of all three. We can say almost anything, can be mostly left alone, and will at least get the chance to know who our accuser is, even if we cannot interrogate them in court.

What the internet has done, however, is throw off the balance. It has introduced the real possibility of anonymity.

Historically, people could try to be anonymous by putting on a mask, by lying about their name and origin, or perhaps by using proxies and servants. But masks are clearly visible (you know you’re dealing with someone whose identity is hidden), lies can, in principle, be discovered and punctured, and servants can be traced back to their masters. Towns were small enough — even cities were small enough — that what went around did come back around.

Now true, real, powerful anonymity is possible. This anonymity has two sources: first, the  People can spread self-serving lies (“fake news”), even allegations, without having their reputational skin in the game.

Part of the use of anonymity is defensive in nature. The fact that these attacks are a possibility is reason enough not to put our own name out there for evaluation and possible attack without reprisal. Having your name known is, in most cases, an intimate and vulnerable state.

Our name can be known by many other people that we don’t know, of course–if we are famous. Even here, the widespread knowledge of our name represents fame or infamy. In a word, honor.

Having honor is caring about what others think of you, specifically of others within your honor group. Honor is, first and foremost, an enforcement mechanism against the tragedy of the commons (a man is not honorable if he takes advantage of his friends, and treason is the deepest depth of dishonor). But it is also something we can be proud of when we act honorably. To a great extent, we measure a man by how honorable he is. And when honorable men are admired, honor itself is reinforced.

This means that the prevalence of online anonymity is not just a threat to social trust and to our right to face our accuser, but to the very heart of what is valued in being men. Our name is a part of our identity, a linguistic association that has been gradually, symbiotically cultivated around our history and our nature. It would be overstating the case to say that the anonymity of the internet and the dishonorable behavior it encourages threatens our very identities as individuals, but it does threaten to erode something special and something important about who we are, which makes us respectable and admirable as individuals, and which makes civilization possible.

We face two spirals: one downward, and one upward.

The former is a path of safety, achieved through hiddenness, anonymity, dishonorable conduct, and a win-lose world of dyscivic cat-fighting. This world is dystopian in its pettiness; a world where it is a casually accepted, grimly amusing fact that someone can have their lives and reputations destroyed for “racism” or “sexual harassment,” arising from anonymous sources, and where real victims are increasingly, cynically, disbelieved. It is a ghost-world, where nothing is solid, no one is “real,” and the experience of attempting to make friends is a global extension of the “Seattle freeze” (by necessity).

The second path is a path of openness, of sincerity, and of honesty — of honor. This path will encourage others to emulate you, because people cannot help but admire courageous, authentic people. But this path does take courage, because it incurs real risk. People do lose their jobs, their livelihoods, their families, and even their lives, for the sake of their name.

In the end, we’re all going to die, and our names will likely be forgotten anyways. Still, it should not be thought of as an easy choice: name or life; honor or security. Our culture has defaulted to security, arising from the all-encompassing logic of liability (cover your ass). But this is not a sustainable path if civilization is to be preserved. The only way that will happen is if we begin to care more about our honor than our safety.

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