Voice in Democracy: When Anonymity Helps

As we are seeing these days in the Middle East and Africa, even Wisconsin, democracy is never easy—whether to initiate or to keep. What we know is that we cannot maintain a democratic form of government without “voice.” After all, democracies are “temples of talk.” Yet, many times it proves too threatening to express opinions, or even to interject facts, into public discussions. Discussions sometimes threaten work, family, or community relations, yet without discussions, none of these institutions can long survive. In many situations, only the few dare voice opposition to either the status quo or to proposed change. But these days it is getting easier to be heard without some of the threat that has traditionally attached to voice. We are seeing an upwelling of “anonymity” as a form of voice.

I follow a bunch of blogs in the economics and finance arena. Believe me, there are a bunch of these. As you might guess, given recent financial shenanigans events, there are very active conversations in these blogs, and also in mainstream periodicals—that themselves now embed blogs. Some who comment and some who blog remain anonymous. Why? Because of perceived threats, sometimes very real threats. Anonymity allows a particular voice that would be disallowed if people were to “post” or comment under their real names.

Here are two examples. One noted financial blogger, The Epicurean Dealmaker, posts as TED (an acronym). TED is widely viewed as a sage in the arena of Wall Street financial deal-making. TED claims to be a mid- to higher-level employee of a Wall Street firm. He (or she? Not likely!) has been very critical of the culture wherein he makes a fine living. And his posts, and guarded/shielded interviews, have helped to unravel some of the mysteries of this arcane world. TED is unabashed. He even challenges people to find out who he is. He is so sure of himself that he believes that he will not be “outed.”

Then there is Maxine Udall (girl economist), who spent a few years blogging and attracted a following. Turns out that “Maxine” was not her real name. Unfortunately, the real author passed away suddenly a few weeks ago. She was “outed” after her untimely passing. Most everybody had previously thought Maxine was a savvy graduate student. Turns out that she was a professor. Had she been blogging under her real name, her voice would have been less edgy.

If you want to comment with anonymity, here’s what you can do. First create a fictitious name/email address, then begin commenting. Or, particularly if you want to carry conversation “off line” set up a real email, like TED did, with a “handle”, not your real name. If you feel you have more to say, start an anonymous blog—it is very easy.

We need more “voice” in the public lands arena. I don’t understand why there are not more blogs on matters we discuss here. Is it just timidity? Is it that there is so little passion among employees and public lands watchers? Really? Likely not. So what else is going on?

8 Comments

  1. One factor for the lack of voices is time, not so much that there’s less time than the 24 hours we get each day, but certainly a person’s choices whittle away at the available time until there is little left or it’s time for bed. The number of possible distractions encountered on a daily basis now is almost overwhelming. The access to information via technology would seem to allow more opportunities to submit opinions on most anything. But that same technology is also a source for those pesky distractions. Just look at how mass media advertising focus on those distractions…when was the last time a cell phone company heralded an opportunity to provide insights to an important social consideration through the use of their latest product?

    I think people need to look within themselves and ask whether all these distractions that we attend to are making a better world for us, and our future generations, to live in. Given the state of the debates we’re witnessing and listening to, I’d say, from a moral and ethical perspective, “no”.

    • Many years ago my good friend Hanna Cortner spent a month with our Regional Forester’s office trying to help them get a better handle on managing the USFS Intermountain Region. In the end, Hanna’s recommendations for the Regional Forester focused on the problem you identify as “a person’s choices whittle away at the available time until there is little left or it’s time for bed.”

      Hanna’s recommendations were that folks needed to study their own lives/schedules and make time for “important stuff”. In a way Hanna’s message was simply that we can’t let the “urgent” drive out the “important.” Suggestions included better delegation (i.e. trusting one’s so-called subordinates), and following an “aid to the mayor model” (i.e. appointing someone to stand-in on meetings, etc. when time needed to be carved out for more important stuff, including reflection, contemplation of future management concerns, etc.)

      It is true that we have a society where we seem to be Amusing Ourselves to Death, as Neil Postman once titled a very good book. Postman’s subtitle was “Public discourse in the age of show business.” I’ve often thought that Postman might have made quite a statement by leaving all the pages in between covers blank. Public discourse in the US really leaves much to be desired. Still, I remain hopeful that blogs, wikis, etc. will eventually help to bring us to a better place for public discourse.

      • Dave said:

        Hanna’s recommendations were that folks needed to study their own lives/schedules and make time for “important stuff”. In a way Hanna’s message was simply that we can’t let the “urgent” drive out the “important.”

        It sounds like she was applying some of Steven Covey’s work regarding sorting work into a quadrant and then making sure to find time for the things that fall into the important/not urgent. box. This was what Chuck Myers, a greatly underappreciated leader in my view, was trying to do as Regional Forester when he brought in Rebecca Reynolds as a consultant to help the region develop the goals and objectives that I listed in a comment regarding another post here. Most importantly, Chuck was trying to help the leadership team use the exercise of crafting a shared vision to become a higher performing team where dialog could be genuine and open, agendas were not hidden and real work on important things could get done.

        I keep hoping that more of the dialog going on via this blog can be genuine discourse and not merely an amusement. How are we doing? How can we do better?

  2. I agree with you Dave that we need more voices discussing public lands issues. But I think the anonymity aspect is a smaller consideration than those raised by Tony. To paraphrase E.O. Wilson, we are drowning in information while starving for wisdom. Considering that we evolved responding to immediate threats, we are biologically primed to be sucked into the myriad of distractions Tony describes.

    I also think that anonymity is ultimately an inferior way to stand for principles; that is, I think there is both a bolder strength in being forthright with where you stand. Putting your real name to your words exposes you to greater risk, but it also reveals greater commitment to your ideals. You may suffer retribution, but that dedication to a cause will also command greater respect.

    In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East, bloggers and posters were able to call for reform and protests. But what made the difference was when the people went out on the streets and openly (and nonviolently/unarmedly)stood for change in the face of heavy police states.

    Or to look at it another way, would, say, Mahatma Ghandi, Rachel Carson, Martin Luther King Jr and Harriet Tubman have been able to accomplish what they did as anonymous bloggers?

    I don’t mean to set up a straw-man argument: your point is that anonymity allows for discussion or participation to occur that otherwise might not happen, and as you post under your real name, you may well concur with me. My point is more that if it takes anonymity for dicussion/participation to occur, then the outcome will be more muted and there are larger issues, such as oppression of diverse and dissident perspectives, that need to be addressed.

    Perhaps it is a yin-yang relationship: unfettered anonymous discussion may be an integral step which sets the stage for confronting the tectonic issues in an open and effective manner.

  3. I was once reported to the Chief of the Forest Service for posting criticism on the Internet. I was using my real name and was a Forest Service employee. some anonymous “preservationist” person didn’t like my middle-of-the-road viewpoint and was happy to try and ruin my life, asking me to be fired. The very next day, the Chief had a press release about preservationist lies and misinformation flying around the Internet. I never heard anything from it, as the e-mail was probably deleted, being from an anonymous sender.

    I’m still hoping to get a job doing contract inspections but, my resume hasn’t been forwarded to a job in 2 years, despite my 15 seasons of specific experience and numerous cash awards. Even lookout jobs are few and far between.

  4. Not surprisingly, I have a different take on the above discussion.

    1. If I were paid to be a professor or an extension agent, blogging would be a way to get my ideas out to others. However, I am a practitioner, so I am not paid to blog- in fact, we have an entire public affairs department that is paid to talk about what the agency does. Sometimes, we will visit with students and professors and discuss issues as a public service, to potentially recruit students or at least attempt to convince them that we are not the dunderheads or minions of the Prince of Darkness that some make us out to be. However, this is definitely the spice and not the flour of the worklife cake.

    Ergo 2. To blog seriously, then, requires personal time- the same kind of commitment that a professional society might take. I believe that individuals either feel that calling to whatever work-related (or not) issue, or don’t. Plus at varying stages of life we have other responsibilities and commitments. I believe that if you prepare the right atmosphere, the people who are meant to be there will show up. Sort of the “Field of Dreams” model.

    I should point out that I see the world in a fairly yin way, and the Forest Service has a strong yang culture. I seek balance and harmony with my yang brothers and sisters, but sometimes they see in me irritating levels of inaction.

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