Monday 27 September 2010

Anonymity: The power to speak freely

William Quincy Belle is not my real name; it is a pseudonym. When I first decided to join the ranks of those espousing their personal view of the world, publishing their stream of consciousness and divulging the intimate thoughts of their innermost selves, I felt a certain degree of reticence about revealing myself to the outside world.

Anonymity does bring a different aspect to blogging. There are no rules; there are no restrictions. You can say anything you want. Nobody is overseeing your choice of topics; nobody is editing your prose or your approach in dealing with your chosen topic. Freedom and total liberty are the principal attributes of being anonymous. Yes, you can choose to get feedback in the form of comments but you do have the option of moderating comments and you also have the ultimate authority in deleting any comment which just doesn't strike your fancy. You have complete power; you are lord and master (lady and mistress?) of your domain.

Ah, but with freedom comes responsibility. Freedom to utter your innermost secrets may also be your ticket to boring the heck out of people. Do you really have something important or interesting to say? Just because it's an innermost secret doesn't necessarily mean you've got something profound to share which will captivate your potential audience and leave them wanting more.

On the other hand, and here's where I see the importance of anonymity, your freedom to say anything is your opportunity to not worry about all the normal restrictions we contend with in regular life. Whether we like it or not; whether we admit it or not, our actions, our words and even our thoughts are very much affected if not controlled by our surroundings. Our family, our friends, our colleagues, all these people play a part in determining what may or may not be acceptable to them and hence to us. Add on top of that society in general like the laws of the land and the morality of religion and you end up with quite a long list of influences both good and bad which will certainly affect how you behave.

I wrote an article entitled Sex: Men are from Mars during which I spoke of masturbation. Hmmm, now is that a topic of conversation I'd consider bringing up around the water cooler at my place of employment? Am I going to talk about that with my neighbours or even my kids? Ha! Maybe, as a good parent dealing with sex education, I should have talked about it with my kids!

Nevertheless, my point is that any of us would probably think twice of discussing such a topic and we would certainly think it over three times as with whom we would discuss this. Society, our "real life" sets up numerous impediments to talking about certain topics like personal feelings, emotions, and relationships and of course, sex.

Why? Well, it strikes me as rather obvious. We do something; we get a negative reaction; we don't do that again. We do something; we get a positive reaction; we repeat the action. Seems somewhat Pavlovian; a sort of trial and error system whereby we determine what we can and can't do. [chuckles] I imagine that a great deal of all this is learned as a child with our parents; then comes school with teachers and classmates.

So, let's return to this idea of anonymity. Ha! I think of one of those cinematic moments where somebody enters the confessional in a Catholic church to absolve themselves of their sins. The main idea here is that you have, to a certain extent, anonymity. Maybe not anonymity from the priest although it is supposed that the priest does not necessarily know you, but you have anonymity from the community at large. Your friends and neighbours even your own family are going to be unaware of what you've confessed to. Ah, the liberation of being able to divest yourself of whatever troubles you without the worry of criticism, censure or even banishment. Confession is good for the soul. - [chuckles] Even good for Tony Soprano if I think back to the HBO television series. Excellent series by the way; catch it in reruns or get the DVDs.

But not all of us are Catholic. Growing up Protestant, I do not remember there being a similar ritual in the church and off the top of my head I cannot speak of other religions; such a system of confession is unknown to me. Other than religion, there are professional services like psychologists, therapists or some sort of support group so in some way, albeit complicated to find or get involved with, there may be an outlet away from family and friends, an outlet somewhat anonymous where one may discuss topics that normally one would not want to discuss with family and friends.

My nom de plume
When I was in school way back when the Earth was cooling, in the early 60's, the teacher gave us an assignment to write a short story. At that time, James Bond had hit the mainstream with first the movie Dr. No then From Russia With Love. I ate it up like any pubescent boy discovering girls, manliness and the idea of being an adult by devouring every book ever penned by Ian Fleming. As a consequence, my choice of topic for a short story was a spy story similar to James Bond featuring a spy I elected to call William Belle. I had never forgotten the name and when considering a nom de plume for my blog, I naturally said why not use this name. Just before starting the blog, I researched the name William Belle and discovered a number of people with this name so I further distinguished it by adding Quincy.

Other aspects
In perusing information about anonymity, I can see all sorts of angles to the issue. It can be a good thing as it allows us to talk of things we would normally be reticent to bring up. It can be a bad thing as it allows people to say or possibly do things, bad things, for which they cannot or will not be held accountable. Obviously, as with just about anything, anonymity has its pros and cons.

The issue I did want to bring up, the real issue about anonymity and me choosing to write using a false name is that anonymity provides a certain freedom, real or perceived, to discuss matters very subjective and personal that the real world may frown on. It's interesting to note the level of apprehension if not outright fear any of us may have in discussing certain ideas. If I was in China, I would be afraid of criticizing the government. At work, I'm afraid of criticizing my boss. With family and friends, I am afraid to discuss personal issues whether it be my own quest for the meaning of my life, what possibly have I managed accomplish of any worth during my oh so brief time on this planet and my relationships, my marriage and sex.

Fortunately, I live in Canada, not China. We have freedom of speech here which does permit me pretty much total liberty to say what I want. Of course, our society may put certain limits on such freedom: no promotion of hatred, nothing related child porn, etc. but for the most part, I am free to say what I want. Ha! Imagine trying to criticize our Prime Minister Stephen Harper in China. You'd be jailed!

See my blog entry Freedom of Speech: Freedom to say "anything"? to see some of the bad aspects of such total freedom.

I picture this as the quintessential example of everyday social interactions. It certainly is here that we can observe and participate in what anybody would call "the norm" of behaviour. Yes, here we are very much influenced by what others think; especially if that person may be one's boss. We are probably very, very careful to stay in the middle of the road out of fear of being ostracized or even fired. Ah, the influence one has when one has the power to send somebody packing!

Family and Friends
While this social circle is arguable closer than the previous group, there are still rules of etiquette with taboos and censure for those things which may fall outside the realm of the norm. With friends, you may say more than at work; after all your friends do not have the power to fire you. Of course, they have the power to ostracize you and that is quite the power to wield. Nobody likes not being part of the "group".

Family is slightly different; hopefully a little more intimate but then again, a question for all of us: Just how open and honest are you with your spouse? Still have secrets you are leery to divulge to your partner in life?

Am I being dishonest? Maybe, but at least you can't firebomb my house; you can't turn me in to the authorities and you can't tell my boss about me. Although my wife knows about this blog and reads it periodically.

Let's just say that I have given myself a liberty of expression that "real life" prevents me from having. One could argue that any impediments to the freedom of speech I may be feeling are more imaginary than real but while I think my article about masturbation is true, pertinent to the human condition and hopefully a tad humorous, I'm not sure I am ready for others, family other than my wife, my neighbours and my colleagues at work, to be made aware of my thoughts about a subject which remains pretty much taboo in our society. For that, I remain as embarrassed and uncomfortable as the next guy. But behind my nom de plume, I can speak freely!


Wikipedia: Anonymity
Anonymity is derived from the Greek word ἀνωνυμία, anonymia, meaning "without a name" or "namelessness". In colloquial use, anonymity typically refers to the state of an individual's personal identity, or personally identifiable information, being publicly unknown.

Wikipedia: Pseudonymity
Pseudonymity, a word derived from pseudonym, meaning 'false name', is a state of disguised identity. The pseudonym identifies a holder, that is, one or more human beings who possess but do not disclose their true names (that is, legal identities). Most pseudonym holders use pseudonyms because they wish to remain anonymous, but anonymity is difficult to achieve, and is often fraught with legal issues. True anonymity requires unlinkability, such that an attacker's examination of the pseudonym holder's message provides no new information about the holder's true name.

my blog: Sex: Men Are From Mars
In my lifetime, whether it is my own experiences, the experiences of others, what I have observed in everyday life, television, movies or the news, I have noticed a theme. Men can be and ofttimes are both persistent and very direct in their quest for sex. Why?

my blog: Freedom of Speech: Freedom to say "anything"?
In Canada, the anti-Jewish extremist Salman Hossain has been charged in absentia with three counts of promoting hatred and two counts of advocating genocide based on what he said on his web site. In the United States, the white supremacist "shock jock" radio host Hal Turner has been found guilty of threatening 3 judges based on what he said in his blog. We all think we're free to say anything we want but are we free to say absolutely anything?

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.
- Oscar Wilde, Irish dramatist, novelist, & poet (1854 - 1900)


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