Everyone has an agenda. Some are overt, some less so; some noble, some not. Many are subtle about it; some aren’t. The important thing to realize, however, is that the basis of an agenda is for all practical purposes irrelevant. Actions are more important than motivation.
This is closely related to anonymity and pseudonymity, two closely-intertwined subjects I’ve been writing about frequently this month. Anonymity and pseudonymity are – as should be obvious to most – important to me. Whether this is because I’m a pseudonymous blogger who writes occasionally inflammatory rhetoric, a subversive plotting to overthrow the government, a producer, distributor, or collector of ch1ld pr0n, or just a long-time privacy-rights advocate, is immaterial. My agenda is clear.
Kelly Ramsey thinks pseudonymity equals “irrelevance”. He writes:
For much reporting and analysis, though, reputation matters a great deal. Almost no one takes the time to independently confirm every presented fact or interrogate the logic behind every offered premise… As galling as it may be to admit, everyday information-gathering and assessment often runs on faith. As a result, the ability to evaluate an information-provider’s reputation for trustworthiness is indispensable.
At best, this seems to be disingenious reinforcement of bad habits; at worst, a patently flawed attempt to play “blame the victim” with the great unwashed masses.
Regardless of the fact that it’s widespread habit, people should not judge the veracity of a statement based entirely on the identity of the author. Rational, objective information-gathering should not “run on faith”. That is often does is not an argument against the creditability of anonymous and pseudonymous authorship, but, I feel, an argument for better education and instruction of critical reasoning and thinking skills.
Kelly addresses this as well:
Consider…the social constraint of time. Few, unfortunately, have the time to evaluate every single proposition on its own merits. People filter. Those information-providers who develop reputations for quality will, like it or not, rise through readers’ attention filters to the top. Those who develop reputations for uselessness (from, say, a propensity for vituperation or a habit of mindless agreement) will sink to the bottom.
I believe this is very nearly true. The problem lies in “reputation for quality”. To far too many, this is synonymous with “popularity”, and popularity has nothing to do with honesty, truthfulness, or accuracy. Bill O’Reilly is wildly popular, and considered by many to have a stellar reputation for quality. So too are Atrios and, for that matter, Anne Coulter. Their reputations have no bearing on the accuracy of their statements.
They’re hardly deep thinkers, I admit, but neither are your typical newspaper staff, magazine columnists, or, yes, bloggers. This isn’t a problem, though. The problem is that people let these folks’ ideas rise to the top, not based on the merit of their ideas, but because of who they are.
This isn’t a case of sour grapes on my part. I would much rather people learn to objectively evaluate information presented to them than hang on my every word. I’m not trying to become famous, get on television, and sign six-figure book deals. (If I were, I’d have a much more original pseudonym than “Nemo”.)
“Filtering” ideas based on an actual, individually-developed reputation of worth is one thing – critically approaching the work of a writer and deciding that it has consistent merit, then later accepting, if only provisionally, his or her future work as having value. Running with the herd, and mistaking popularity for worth is quite another.
Consider the social constraint of respectability. As regrettable as it is, the longstanding online practice of using fanciful pseudonyms (whether as supplements to one’s real name or substitutions for it) has yet to gain acceptance among the most influential individuals and institutions. A real name is still a necessary credential for getting one’s foot in the door outside of the blogs, forums, chat rooms, mailing lists, and news groups. The most famous blog authors are those who maintain public identities. Journalists cite people, not screen names. Public intellectuals, private experts, and politicians currently have little incentive to take heed of nameless commenters.
And this brings me back to agendas: Kelly, as is evident from reading his blog, wants to be a Somebody. He wants attention. He wants a reputation. He wants to be respected, and creditable, and influential. He has a very firm idea of where he stands in society, and the strength of his disdain for those beneath him is matched only by his desire for upward mobility and importance. As such, he would like you to believe that his ideas, opinions, and vitriol have inherently more worth than those of others, because he signs them with his own name. (At least, he says it’s his own name…) It sounds like a reasonable position to many, and it serves his ends far better than telling his readers “Reason critically! Learn to evaluate things on their own merits!”.
The point is, you don’t need to know who I am – or who Kelly is – to spot our agendas. You don’t need to know who anyone is to spot their agenda. All the personal identity might do is help give you a reason for the agenda, which is immaterial.
It’s all fine and dandy to want to be “someone”. It’s easy to use your own name to help reinforce the system you want to be a part of. It’s remarkably easy to be yourself when you are trying to support the status quo, or being critical of straw men, stereotypes, and generalizations. Yet it’s painfully self-serving to dismiss anonymity and pseudonymity as “irrelevant”, to deny those who would rock the boat – those who would like some degree of privacy – or merely those who would like to promote unpopular ideas – the ability to do so in a meaningful way without personal risk.
Is this highbrow? Pretentious? Hopefully not. But maybe – if I’m lucky – it’s honest and open. Considering the subject at hand, that would be kind of ironic – which is truly irrelevant.