By now, just about everyone believes that when you hide behind the mask of anonymity you lose your inhibitions.
The conventional wisdom says that when you go online to write a comment on a website or blog as Anonymous you are more likely to be rude, crude, and lewd.
On Saturday Matt Ridley offered us an enlightened analysis of a phenomenon that is a lot more complicated than we think.
Just because everyone believes something does not make it true. Sometimes everyone repeats an idea because it makes them feel like they belong to the cognoscenti.
If you have a little too much time on your hands read through the comments section on a gossip site like Gawker. There you will find all manner of rude, crude, and lewd remarks posted by people who often do not identify themselves.
On the other hand, the comments on this blog, even when they are posted by Anonymous, are unfailingly polite, respectful, thoughtful and intelligent.
Of course, this site has far fewer comments than Gawker. But if you look at a prominent relationship and dating blog like Hooking Up Smart, you will find a site that is flooded with comments, most of them by young people, nearly all of them thoughtful and serious.
Some are posted anonymously; some are posted pseudonymously; some carry names. All of the commenters tend to display decorum.
Some sites are magnets for foul remarks. Some are not. I do not know the percentages, but I would venture that the vast majority of comments on the vast majority of websites are sane, sober, and rational, even when they have been written by Anonymous.
If a blog or website invites discussion, if you want to participate and if you want people to take your views seriously you will avoid obnoxiousness.
You are not going to persuade anyone of your opinion if you accompany it with ramblings that are rude, crude, and lewd.
Of course, sites define themselves. Different sites set different tones. Gawker is about gossip. Surely, the site’s dedication to uncovering salacious secrets sets the tone.
It feels normal that the commenters would want their comments to harmonize with the tone of the site. Sleaze begets sleaze.
A more intriguing piece of unexamined conventional wisdom is this: why do we assume that the worst we say or do is our truth?
When you are commenting on Gawker you are really playing a role in someone else’s drama. You are not necessarily revealing your truth.
Take a different example. When a penitent goes to confession in a Catholic Church he speaks from behind a screen. In principle his confessor does not know who is confessing.
Ridley suggests that when people are afforded the promise, or even the pretense, of anonymity, they are more truthful and honest than they would be if they were facing other humans.
He adds that when a patient lies down on a psychoanalyst’s couch he is offered the illusion of anonymity and the sense of not facing another individual. Presumably this helps him to be more open and honest.
Ridley continues that anonymity allows us to be more open because we cannot be held accountable for our remarks.
Most people would agree, but, let’s question these supposedly self-evident truths.
When a Catholic goes to confession he is certainly expected to be truthful, but that is not the same thing as saying that he is revealing his ultimate truth. Why not believe that his faith or his charity is his truth?
Again, we are far too quick to assume the worst and to believe that the worst is the truest.
Also, I doubt very much that a penitent who goes to confession is more open and honest because he does not fear being held accountable.
Isn't the penitent there except to take personal responsibility for his sins?
Confession is a sacred rite. It assigns roles to each participant. If the penitent reveals his darkest sins to his confessor he is also acting within the role that has been assigned him.
No one goes to confession to announce good news or to schmooze.
The same is true of psychoanalytic patients. Lying on the couch might allow an individual to reveal things he would otherwise not want to reveal. Some of them might not be worth revealing. Yet it is also true that patients tend to present truths that are consonant with the theoretical prejudices of their analysts.
A patient in Freudian analysis will think, speak, and even dream in the vocabulary of Freudian theory. A patient in Jungian analyst will think, speak and even dream in the vocabulary of Jungian theory.
This means that Freudian psychoanalysis has far more in common with confession than most of its practitioners would willingly admit. Patients know what is expected of them, and they usually try to comply: talking about their sins, real and imagined, and their faults, flaws, and foibles.
Analytic patients also recognize that treatment will teach them how to take responsibility for their depraved desires.
We need also to recognize that speaking from behind a mask is not the same as being faceless. Pretending to be anonymous or using a pseudonym is not the same as losing face. At least not in the way the term is used in Chinese thought.
Putting on a disguise to participate in a social drama is not the same thing as being ostracized, being made a social pariah.
In Chinese thought when you lose face you lose your status or even your membership in a social group. At that point the Chinese would say that you have no face.
This is extreme. It is so extreme that a person who has no face has, in principle, nothing more to lose and would therefore be more likely to speak the unadulterated truth.
Yet, when you have lost face you might feel that you need to act the part. You might feel that your behavior must conform to what is expected of someone in your situation. And that might mean that you feel compelled to say the kinds of appalling things that would persuade the community at large that it was correct to ostracize you.
We might say that that is the truth of your character, but it is a truth that has been defined by your community. If you are judged lacking in face you might be ostracized.
If rude, crude, and lewd remarks characterize someone who has no face, there is no reason to encourage anyone else to indulge them. If you feel compelled to insult the world, the world will soon conclude that you have no decency, no dignity, and no self-respect.
Of course, if you have been ostracized and wish to return to a group’s good graces, you might also be inclined to be on best, not worst, behavior.
Ridley also points out that we are less likely to offer a furious critique of someone’s work if we are facing him. Anonymity makes us fearless.
Doubtless, there is some truth to this. But it is also fair to say that furious criticism was alive and well at times when people were more than happy to affix their names to their critiques.
Of course, a newspaper review is not addressed to the same audience as a personal confrontation. Some reviewers write scurrilous comments under their own name because they want to show off their talent or to get attention.
Ridley explains our hesitation to criticize people to their faces by saying that we inhibit ourselves in order to avoid personal retaliation.
If the person who has received your excoriating critique does not know that you wrote it he will, ipso facto, be less likely to retaliate. If he is standing two feet away from you when you tell him to his face that his work sucks he is more likely to retaliate.
But is it really fear that causes us to hide behind masks? Are courtesy and respect signs of inhibition or an effort to make a human connection?
If we want to think ill of human beings we will opt for the former. If we want to think well of them we will opt for the latter.
Ridley explains his idea by invoking primate behavior:
In many monkeys and apes, face-to-face contact is essentially antagonistic. Staring is a threat. A baboon that fails to avert its eyes when stared at by a social superior is, in effect, mounting a challenge. Appeasing a dominant animal is an essential skill for any chimpanzee wishing to avoid a costly fight.
For most human beings, however, face-to-face contact is not essentially antagonistic. When humans stare at each other they are threatening each other. When they refuse to make eye contact they are showing fear. But, there is a middle ground, a golden mean, between staring at someone and refusing to make eye contact.
That is where most of us try to live our lives.