Anonymity, Privilege, and the Quest for Personal Truth
This article will be a rather long one so I beg your forgiveness in advance, but it is a piece of great personal importance to me. The debate it touches on is one that imbricates with all of our geek lives, and the lives of those beyond our particular nerdy circles. Indeed, as Blizzard recently proved, it is a debate that will touch on many online video game properties.
Randi Zuckerberg, marketing director for Facebook, caused a bit of a stir recently when she resurrected her brother’s ideological hobby horse and proclaimed that progress requires the death of anonymity on the Internet. It is another effort to impose on Internet users a demand for a particular kind of truth that severely disadvantages people from certain backgrounds; to wit, Ms. Zuckerberg and her brother are both cis. They will never have to confront the difficulties that women like me faced before we came out, when anonymity was a blessing that enabled us to shape our identities with less stress and trauma than might have been otherwise imposed on us. It was this issue and several related ones I alluded to when I took Blizzard to task for its abortive RealID proposals to force all of their players to reveal their real names on the World of Warcraft forums.
An Ideology by Any Other Name
What I find fascinating about our society is the great importance we place on our names. Ms. Zuckerberg sees ‘real’ and ‘legal’ names as the key to ensuring accountability and responsibility on the internet. I will leave aside, for the moment, that my life has been materially harmed by many people whose legal names are widely known and who seem to be accountable to no one but themselves. Let us just treat this very simple issue of ‘what’s in a name?’ The answer is: quite a lot.
To speak from my own perspective, I hated my old name with a passion. Its symbolism, meaning and impact on my life were not of my choosing. As I have said in very public interviews changing my name legally was one of the most important and pathbreaking events in my life. To hear me speak about my past and how it was in some ways shaped by my having a name I hated is to hear my voice quiver with passion that only great pain can summon. I hated using my old name, I had less attachment to it than I did to my Social Security number. Any opportunity I could use to shirk it, to go by another name, to adopt the whole-cloth persona that a new name can sometimes lend or buttress, was eagerly seized by me. There was far more truth in the names I would choose for myself than there was in the name my father imposed on me at birth.
The Zuckerbergs seem to disagree. For them, a ‘legal name’ is truth. But who decides what a legal name is? In the United States courts have the final say on that, and for the first eighteen years of your life in most states, your parents have veto power over any self-directed name changes. Is your legal name your ‘real’ name? Or is it a mutually sustained fiction that allows others to better fit you into predetermined categories to which you may not otherwise willingly subscribe yourself. To be sure, my old name sorted me into a category I decidedly did not want. It told people what was ‘true’ according to a cissexist and patriarchal doctrine, but not what was truest to me, in my heart of hearts. If anything, I dissolved between the letters of my old name.
The ability to be myself online without the baggage, gendered and otherwise, that came with my old legal name represented something vitally important about the promise of the Internet: I was able to forge my own truth.
What the Zuckerbergs are promoting, consciously or otherwise, is an ideology that is intimately concerned with promoting one truth over another. A truth that is validated with the full faith and credit of patriarchy, a truth that forcibly outs trans people and places still more controls on our identities (in a realm that had hitherto been a great gust of fresh air in that regard).
For the Zuckerbergs, personal truth is what they’ve declared it to be. It is what’s on Facebook. Their quest to promote this truth as a vision of veracity for the whole of human civilisation is not confined to them and, indeed, has many advocates. But there are many people in this world who have come to realise that personal truth is more variegated, complicated, colourful, and personal. It is multifaceted out of necessity; none of us shares the whole of ourselves at any given moment. We present different shards of self to others as surely as we change clothes regularly to suit the occasion. Personal truth is a d20 die.
A Blizzard of Paperwork
One thing that cis people often take for granted is the staggering number of places where their gender identity is privileged in its acceptance and duly marked down in some file or database somewhere– whether it’s through their names or through an actual gender marker or both. Trans people become experts in this seemingly arcane bit of bureaucratic errata, a hodgepodge of policies abounding for name and gender changes. In the United States your Department (or Registry) of Motor Vehicles has a different policy for such changes than your local Department of Health than the Department of State (for passports– this doesn’t even begin to get into the rigamarole that expats and immigrants have to endure here) than your school than your place of work than the Social Security Administration and so on and so on. Credit rating agencies are thrown into the mix as well as a host of other organisations great and small that have a powerful and invisible claim to your life history that can only be negotiated with via shoving paperwork in all the right places, hiring lawyers, attending court hearings, making lots of annoying phone calls and so on. (For the interested, here is a rundown of what one has to do to change their name in the American state of New York).
When I changed my name, I had to fight with my bank to ensure that my name was properly changed everywhere that bank kept records. I actually had dealt with a transphobic cis woman who made things all the more difficult when I sat down with her at the bank. I’ll never forget the complete change in her visage when I told her my old name. She went from friendly to very gloomy and quiet. Unsurprisingly I found out later that my request had never been filed and I had to spend hours on the phone with various regional offices all over the world and visit a second branch before I could change everything top to bottom (to the bank’s credit, the woman at the second branch was vastly more helpful, kind, and tolerant).
So, you can imagine trans people would be less than pleased with having to add Facebook and World of Warcraft to the list of organisations we have to haggle with. As I mentioned in my previous article on this subject a trans woman I knew had to actually fax documents to Blizzard Entertainment in order to have her name changed on the newly implemented RealID system.
This is reaching levels of un-satirisable absurdity.
“Baby, You’ll Be Famous”
The contempt for humanity does not end with trans people, of course. Women, particularly those who are being stalked, harassed, dealing with abusive exes, are rape and/or abuse survivors, are current or former sex workers, and those who are simply participating in spaces generally contemptuous of women’s vocal presence, have reason to be quite alarmed at this demand the Zuckerbergs are making. The minority of men who fit into all the above categories, or people of colour with non-European names, also have reason to want to have more control than not over their identities and how they are used online.
The argument used by some white liberal technophiles is that through forcing digital visibility we force tolerance on the prejudiced. After all, if all of these groups claim to be invisible in online spaces, runs the argument, shouldn’t they welcome imposed visibility? Well, no. The term ‘imposed’ explains why, but it is also worth examining “who does what to whom” as Catharine MacKinnon might perspicuously put it. You have here the privileged forcing something risky and dangerous on those with less power.
There is nothing right about that situation.
It is also yet another case of imposed vanguardism, a particularly pernicious expression of privilege popular among those on the left or in ‘progressive circles’ where the greatest sacrifices are expected of those with the least power. This is the operation of power that inheres to cis gender radicals demanding that trans people be obligated to transgress gender norms according to a standard set by them. What Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk are asking here is no different. He himself sacrifices nothing: he is already a public figure, a nerd hero of sorts awash in uncounted millions with a movie about his life already in the canon of film. But to achieve his vision it is we who must sacrifice something and gain… an abstract, intangible benefit of living up to someone else’s principles.
Forgive me if I decide to pass.
But there is still one more necessary and vital argument against that towering fallacy of a ‘vision.’ If visibility is the goal, forcing an end to online anonymity is a terrible and ineffective way of going about it. In the most extreme case: survivors oftentimes only can speak because of the anonymity online spaces affords them. It was for this reason that the radical feminist blogger Fugitivus was utterly furious at Google Buzz when it gave her name to her abuser, rapist ex who proceeded to abuse that information. Forcing an end to anonymity would be the beginning of the end for such writers whose voices would be silenced and who would be forced into a deeper invisibility.
A central reality of ‘free speech’ in an oppressive society is that those with the most privilege will speak the loudest. Forcing people to out themselves as belonging to a group disproportionately targeted for hate will serve only to widen that divide, not narrow it.
“I’ll Chase You Down Until You Love Me”
The observant may be either grinning or groaning at the fact that the title of this piece and several of its subtitles are drawn from a Lady Gaga song. Aside from simply being amusing to me (and because I can) it’s a direct reference to the fact that this song, which is in essence about the intrusiveness of stalking someone, could rather perfectly sum up the views of the anti-anonymity advocates. Stalking and harassment are about power, and particularly the imposition of will. It is precisely this which is not only being facilitated by anti-anonymity advocates but emulated in its patterns and strategies. They know what is best for us, we have to suffer for their pleasure, they’re doing it because they love us, they wish to be our protective guardians and keep us safe from “really bad” people.
I have been very forthright about my identity and quite open about my history online. I love my name, my true name, my new legal name, and I share it with pride and dignity.
But I did this when I was ready to do so. I did it at times and places of my own choosing after making carefully thought out decisions. My name is relatively easy to find for most readers of this blog and I certainly don’t mind that fact. In many ways it’s advantageous for me to have my name out there as I would like some of my writing to be citable in my later years in academia. But these are all circumstances specific to my situation involving a good deal of control that I am exercising after having clawed back a lot of it from the various agencies that attempt to regulate my identity. To impose from without, to say that what I’m doing is what everyone must do, however, is monstrous. There is nothing more inherently moral about the way I am doing things, nothing inherently more loyal to some objective truth. What I am doing is engaging politically in the way that suits me best; it does not work for everyone.
Let me tell you another little story here, a brief one, about little Quinnae in her younger years when she was but a wee, unknowing lass. When I first loaded up a proper RPG I was absolutely awestruck by that box that all of us take for granted to some degree now:
At the touch of the ‘OK’ button I could have any name I wished. No paperwork, no phonecalls, no angry people, no violent fathers, no anything except striding out into the bright world of adventuring with only a few gold and crappy armour to my newly changed name. That was a personal joy for me that kept me connected to life during periods of darkness when I’d contemplated ending it. The ability to do this with video games, with the Internet– its online games, its forums– kept me alive. Some might say that the Zuckerbergs are talking only about social networking. Leaving aside how important that discrete property is, what they are saying is not confined to that area alone.
“I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away,” she said during a panel discussion on social media hosted Tuesday evening by Marie Claire magazine. “People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.”
Clearly she is referring to the whole of the Internet. The vision she shares with her brother is one of an Internet where anonymity does not, indeed cannot exist anywhere. The fact of the matter is that anonymity can and does bring out the worst in some people, but it is not the cause of that terror. The roots of that lie embedded deep within our society. Racism was not invented on the internet. The problem is not that some racists are a bit more belligerent when they aren’t putting their name behind their rantings. It’s that some racists exist. The same can be said of any type of prejudice. The problem is systemic and a blanket ban on privacy and anonymity, in a society where white/cis/het/male power remains dominant and hegemonic, will serve only to perpetuate that power. ______
Footnotes on Common Arguments
(1) What do you have to hide? This is a very common defence of invasions of privacy that we saw writ large during the height of the Bush years. The fallacy behind it is that guilt is always objectively determined and never subjectively assessed. I do not get nervous going through airport security because I hide something nefarious, but because I am desperately afraid of being hurt by people abusing their power. Similarly, people online who wish to protect their identity simply want to protect themselves, if at all possible, from people abusing power. In an ideal world none of us would have to hide anything; but we do not live in an ideal world. Changing anonymity guidelines would not fix that.
(2) Harassment will decrease if people can only speak using their ‘real’ names. Not if the definition of harassment continues to be set by those with the power to harass with impunity. I have watched far too many instances of men looking bewildered and even offended when it was suggested that their behaviour was harassment, sexual or otherwise. It is identical to the incredulity I see in certain whites who’ve been called to the carpet for racism, or palpitating cis folk who cannot believe I ‘accused’ them of transphobia. Yes, harassment is bad, they say, but they aren’t harassing. And when John Smith says this, his buddies will nod soberly in agreement. Part of the problem with harassment is that the worst offenders will never admit that harassment is what they are doing.
(3) Don’t live in fear. We hear this all the time about all sorts of structural bigotry, including rape culture. The problem isn’t that there are rapists, no, it’s our fault for living in fear. If only we could get over that, go our enlightened acquaintances, we’ll realise that all of that is merely in our heads. An invention of prolonged hysteria. Not based on anything real at all. This sort of nonsense and magical thinking hardly constitutes an argument. It is gaslighting in the extreme. Harassment and stalking online are quite real and very common. Secondly, ‘living in fear’ conjures the supine image of the cowering woman fearing the looming shadow of a man. As I wrote the foregoing sentence it took me a few seconds before I could follow it up with something that was not a swear. That image of the weak and frightened woman is another patriarchal imposition and yet more gaslighting. We do not shiver in terror. We live, and we live beautifully, boldly and corageously; but we do so with caution, with accommodation, with different strategies that we should not have to employ. That is not living in fear. It is simply living. ______
Bingo Sheet Text:
|Correctly identifying and banning pseudonym use is easy.||Sorry, gotta stop spam!||All possible uses of multiple accounts are sockpuppeting.||What, you don’t want your friends and family to find you on our site?||My online culture uses real names exclusively.|
|No wonder your minority group is invisible here, if none of you use your names.||No one will harass/intimidate you using their legal name!||Reputation and legal names go together.||“It’s harder to find people under their legal names!”—Joe Smith||What do you have to hide?|
|Why can’t you be honest and faithful to who you are?||If pseudonyms are used, they should be officially registered.||FREE SQUARE: “don’t be evil”||People have a right to know who they are dealing with!||Sorry, gotta stop sockpuppets!|
|Online harassment? Never heard of it. Don’t believe you.||Only needed by men pretending to be women.||What about the children?||I asked my friends and none of us have any problem with it.||If you don’t want your boss and family to see it, don’t say it online.|
|They have your IP address, why even bother?||Refuse to live in fear.||I will never trust anyone using a pseudonym.||Widespread use of pseudonyms has never worked anywhere.||Harassment is illegal; use of legal names will let you report it to the cops.|