Anonymity and the board

James G. Carrier (jgc5p@UVA.PCMAIL.VIRGINIA.EDU)
Sat, 30 Apr 1994 12:21:11 EDT

29 April, 1994

Dear Folks,

It is getting to be end of term, so I ought to get this off before the summer
vacation, when we can all indulge in the leisure for which academia is so
well known. (Think of it as your summer reading.)
This note is occasioned by a couple of comments about the way that
bulletin boards are an anonymous means of communication. (`Occasioned'
because I did not save the comments, so I can not be said really to be
replying to them.) The writers appeared to like the anonymity, urging us,
inter alia, to use pseudonyms (nommes de board?) and cryptic signature files.
The attraction of the anonymity, and thus of the medium that contains it, is
that it is seen to under-cut the inequalities and power imbalances that, some
seem to feel, disfigure academic life.
In my usual contrarian (read: `pig-headed') way, I think these
sentiments are wrong-headed, arguably dangerously so. I want to explain why.
1. To say that anonymity under-cuts hierarchy is to imply (or at least
this reader infers) that inequality comes with being aware of the status of
the person writing the message. There is a degree of logic in this, for
symbols of authority can and presumably do command some deference. However,
it misses the crucial point that inequality (in any sense other than feeling
over-awed) comes when person A has some power over person B. I do not know
about the rest of you, but the mere fact that someone signs a letter to me
`Marshall Sahlins' or `Marilyn Strathern' does not invoke a hierarchy in the
substantial sense to which I refer. On the other hand, even people with no
repute do invoke that hierarchy when they sign the letter `Department Head'.
My point here is that it is not the anonymity that under-cuts the
hierarchy, but the fact that the communications rest on no material basis of
power. To stress the importance of anonymity is to ignore this fact, and even
to imply by indirection that we _should_ feel over-awed by the famous name --
a variety of thought policing.
2. There is a second, related, and somewhat more insidious issue. That
is the notion that, with anonymity, we are free not to be overwhelmed by the
academic repute of the (unknown) author and are therefore free to make up our
own minds. Yes, but at what cost? Loath as we without repute are to admit it,
many people have a solid reputation because they have satisfied their
colleagues over the course of the years that they are reasonably sensible
people who know what they are talking about. (Equally, of course, their
repute may be coupled with a reputation for talking through their hats from
time to time; or they may have a reputation for being totally around the bend
-- least said, soonest mended.)
(By the way, lest it seem that these points 1 and 2 are contradictory, I
need only note that it is possible to respect expert knowledge without being
over-awed by it. I use the _Times Atlas_ as an embodiment of knowledge that,
from time to time, I find useful. I am not oppressed by it, even though I
have read Foucault.)
If I read a message from, to continue the example, Marshall Sahlins that
deals with his area of expert knowledge, I want to know that Marshall Sahlins
(rather than, say, my mother-in-law) wrote it. It allows me to assess the
likely worth of the message. For face it, I know vanishingly little about
most of the things that people on anthro-l write messages about.
The reason that the plea for anonymity is insidious here is that, again
if only by its indirections and silences, it encourages me to believe that I
am competent to assess the worth of most of what I read. (I.e.: I should be
able to make up my own mind without taking someone else's word on faith.)
Such a belief belittles the efforts of those who have worked to make sense of
a particular body of knowledge, and implies that there is no reason to
respect that effort. More importantly, it leads me to trust my own judgement
where that judgement has no merit. Yes, I will argue with people in an area
where I know what I am talking about, but I would be most ill-advised to
argue facts (and even most interpretations) in areas of my ignorance.
A recent illustration of this regards a passage I posted a few weeks ago
that was written by Richard Jenkins (RJ) and that complained about Pierre
Bourdieu's prose style. One member of the list posted a note that said, in
effect, that this just indicated that RJ was ignorant. RJ may be
wrong-headed, but he is an expert on Bourdieu. Because RJ was anonymous (in
the sense of not known) to the person who claimed that RJ was ignorant, that
person relied on his or her on judgement and did not, apparently, consider
the merits of RJ's complaint, but decided instead to shoot the messenger.
Making RJ un-anonymous -- identifying him as a respected specialist -- would
not necessarily have led the person to accept RJ's criticism of Bourdieu's
style, but might have led the person to ponder the merits of the case.
In sum, the virtues of anonymity exist primarily, so far as I can tell,
if you assume (a) that someone with a famous name but with no link to you can
do you good or ill, (b) that a reputation as a good scholar is never earned,
(c) that the collective judgement of different parts of the discipline that
person X or Y are knowledgeable is little more than bias, and (d) that anyone
can produce a worthwhile judgement on any topic without recourse to
specialist knowledge.
No doubt, on a better day I could say this better. But there you are.


James G. Carrier

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(804) 971-2983 /