When I posted a couple of new rules the other day, one of them brought a reaction stronger than I expected. That was my requirement that, when somebody criticizes me in a post on their own website, they can’t link to it on my site unless they provide their real name.
Now of course some people could use “fake” real names, but, given the Internet, that can usually be checked out. But I insist that if you’re gonna take me on on your website, you tell me who you are.
I do recognize that some “bloggers” and commenters have reasons to remain pseudonymous. They might be atheists living in a small Southern town, for instance, and in such situations posting openly can cost you your friends and family, as happened to pastor Jerry DeWitt, who came out as an atheist in Louisiana. Or you might have a stalker who could make your life miserable. Or you might be transgendered, and timorous about revealing that. Those situations I can understand—and excuse.
But, in the end, posting anonymously, and commenting anonymously, ultimately rests on fear, and that fear is often tantamount to cowardice. Afraid of losing tenure if you say your opinions? Too bad—then keep them to yourself. (That fear is largely unjustified, anyway; any failure to grant tenure for private opinions violates most university policies, and that of the AAUP, I believe.) Anonymous because you want to excoriate someone in a comment, or use intemperate language? That’s cowardice, pure and simple.
In my opinion, which I will check by soliciting comments below, the best way to have civil discourse on a website that dicusses contentious matters is to ask commenters to use their real names. When you do that, you’re taking personal responsibility for what you say, and are less likely to use invective and more likely to be rational. There is a reason that every atheist or secular website I pay attention to—from Richard Dawkins to Sam Harris to P. Z. Myers—has an author that uses his or her real name. If people like those can do it—and they might have a very justified fear of being attacked by the religious—then so can anyone else.
As for the claim that “names don’t matter, arguments do,” I disagree on a few points. First of all, using names, as I said above, confers a certain responsibility and dignitas on the commentariat that often vanishes when you can use pseudonyms. Pseudonymy encourages acrimony, name-calling, and the kind of free-for-all you see on some websites that will remain unnamed. Would you call someone a “douchebag” if you had to take responsibility for it? Well, you might. But perhaps you might also consider making your argument better rather than indulging in a bit of gratuitous abuse.
Second, names matter if you can associate them with someone’s history or credentials. If someone posted medical advice without at least giving her credentials, would you trust it as much as if you knew who the person really was, and could check up on them? (And yes, Orac’s name can be found without much trouble.) I like to think people pay attention to my views on evolution because I’m trained in that area and wrote two books on it.
If names don’t matter, but only arguments, why do newspapers make authors of op-ed pieces give their names? It’s because one writes more thoughtfully and responsibly if people associate your opinions with who you are.
Ask yourself this when you write a post or a comment: why would you not want to give your real name? Don’t you stand personally behind what you write—indeed, aren’t you proud of what you write? Or do you prefer to cower behind the protection of a pseudonym, not for good reasons but just so you can say whatever you want?
So yes, I will require those who take me on in public to give their real names on my site. If you don’t want to, feel free to go after me or my ideas as hard as you want on your own website, but don’t expect me to pay much attention to it. When I have an opponent, I want to know who it is.
I will not require people who comment on this site to give their real names, but let me add that I would appreciate it if they did! Some frequent commenters, like Ben Goren, often take strong and controversial stands, but they don’t seem to suffer because of it. I believe that if people did abjure the pseudonyms, my job of enforcing civility would take much less time (though that’s not the reason behind this).
So, what I am asking is this: if you post here, at least consider using your real name. If you don’t want to do that, could you at least explain why in the comments below?
Would it really bother you to use your name when engaging in discussion here? Do consider that, and consider as well whether your strong reaction against using real names is rationally warranted, or does it simply come from taking people outside their mental comfort zone?