On Anonymity

By Lama El-Mawla

In last week’s issue of the Word, Eli Richman ended his article with: “When I write something, I sign my name on it.” Yes, of course you do! You are a white, male, desk editor of the only publication on campus. In our world, there’s really not much for you to worry about. A lot of people, on the other hand, cannot always afford the luxury of writing their name at the end of an article if they wish to honestly express their opinions about “controversial” issues. (I am putting controversial in quotations because I am borrowing the term from the Word articles—I do not fully understand what is meant by it).

In that same article, Eli wrote: “The act of hiding, of choosing not to take credit for the ideas you preach, directly contradicts the merits of accuracy and accountability that we journalists do our best to achieve.” I find it condescending and patronizing—perhaps also a little amusing—of him to be giving us advice on good journalism. I want to point out, nevertheless, that none of the zine’s articles claimed accuracy, accountability, or even professional journalism. What the zine did claim, instead, is a want to challenge the current silence. This most certainly is not a teenage attempt at “avant-gardism ”, but a very brave direct action.

In his editorial letter, Robert Dorssey, addressed anonymity by comparing it to a mask that permits the dodging of responsibility. An anonymous writer, however, is no less accountable than any other form of writer. The only difference is that anonymity forces us to engage with what is written instead of worrying about who is writing it. It is the thought that can be put on trial, not the person. In this sense, the zine truly is a starting point for conversation insofar as it allows bold and honest discussion of ideas. There is no reason why I cannot respond to and attack a writer whose opinions I disagree with. (In fact, that is exactly what the Word’s editors attempted to do in their three articles last week; it is also what I am trying to accomplish here.) What I cannot do, however, is scare that writer’s family, threaten her or his life, or, to bring it closer to home, put her or his academic career in danger.

Moreover, not every act of writing has to be accurate or accountable. Not every writer is looking to have her or his opinions interpreted, criticized, or answered. Sometimes the act of writing aims to create further conversation in different contexts and spaces without those being related back to the author. This is as valuable of an exercise as accurate journalism is, and both are very different and should not be confused.

In what is my favorite part of their introduction, the editors of the zine tell us: “We are frustrated by the claims for neutrality and the staged discussions to include alternative voices. We are upset about the decreasing spaces for sharing student voices and group ideas that may challenge the structures of our school. We are tired of certain voices always being privileged while others are left out” (italics are mine).  Instead of questioning the zine’s anonymity, I would have liked my school’s publication to be asking a more important question: What is it that makes an Earlham student, or a group of students, feel the need to resort to an anonymous act of protest? That is a conversation I find worth having.

Lastly, I think that there is much to be said about who is feeling uncomfortable or threatened by the anonymity of the zine. Perhaps this is the most powerful thing about anonymity: it makes certain people feel uncomfortable. It creates an atmosphere where fingers cannot easily be pointed at others. And trust me, there is one hand that is almost always so much more successful at pointing than the other. An anonymous act, then, is very effective at shifting that power balance. Anonymous protest changes things for those who have thus far been lucky enough to not know what it is like to be uncomfortable, silenced, or oppressed.

And to those who are now, for the first time, experiencing this unease I say Welcome! Welcome to the dark side!

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This entry was posted in Issue 2: November 1, 2013. Bookmark the permalink.

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