Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Names and Blogging... thoughts on the outing of John Blevins

A lot has already been written on this since Ed Whelan of the National Review exposed John Blevins, who has blogged under the pseudonym of "publius" at the blog Obsidian Wings. I'm not a reader of Whelan's blog or the one to which Blevins contributed, but it hasn't been that difficult to run across discussion of this in the blogosphere since Saturday.

The spat that ended in the outing apparently concerned criticisms of Judge Sotomayor made by Whelan, and Bevins' responses to them under the name "publius". Eventually Whelan had had enough, decided that Blevins was abusing pseudonymity in order to mount unfair attacks and criticisms, and should be exposed. Whelan has been harshly criticized for outing Blevins, and has issued an apology.

I'm not sure exactly what I think about this, but I at least sympathize with Whelan, even if exposing Blevins was the wrong thing to do. Brian Leiter offers a great extended discussion on this, pointing out:

There are obvious limits upon the intuitively plausible idea that "people should be able to decide for themselves what facts about themselves to reveal." A person should be entitled to decide what facts to reveal when they make reasonable efforts to keep those facts private, but what happens when someone enters the public realm, for example, by writing on a highly-trafficked blog? Is the presumption always as strong?
Given the self-interested reasons that the anonymous and pseudonymous have for overstating the reasons why they can not reveal their identity, it hardly seems reasonable to suppose that one should always err on the side of 'caution,' especially if fairness or other considerations support exposure. (Professor Blevins himself admits he doesn't really know if his being 'outed' will cause him any harm at all; and Jonathan Adler [Case Western], who used to blog under a pseudonym at the Volokh blog, allegedly because he was untenured, in fact wrote and blogged under his own name at The National Review at the very same time, thus belying the idea that his secrecy about his identity served any meaningful interest--and the professional risk is, in any case, non-existent in the case of law faculty, almost all of whom get tenure if they don't fall asleep for six years [there are a handful of schools, Chicago among them, that conduct actual tenure reviews, but even they tenure most candidates].) Surely it is reasonable to expect some independent evidence supporting the claimed need for secrecy.

Brian Leiter himself runs a number of high-traffic blogs, and he 1) blogs with his real name, 2) ain't afraid to be highly caustic with those he criticizes, 3) tends to insist or at least strongly advise posters to use their real name, and finally 4) has been known to expose anonymous or pseudonymous posters/emailers/etc. when he catches them... and this has included some well-known religious intellectuals being caught in the act (I'm sure Leiter would question my use of the term "intellectuals", and I suppose I wouldn't blame him for doing so).

I like this approach. I've never blogged pseudonymously, but I will post anonymously or with an invented name on a blog every once in a while... usually because having my name attached to a passing thought seems more trouble than it's worth, and never in a situation where I'd strongly regret being outed if that ever became the case. First names I think are fine when it isn't a situation where in real life you'd want to know any more than that... full names I suppose would be more helpful if there's really a collaborative or collegial relationship in the blogging situation.

But the value of posting with one's name seems usually to outweigh any benefit provided by pseudonymity. I can understand that hiding one's name provides a bit of license for speaking freely, but such a separation seems dangerous in general. Maybe to society, maybe to the health of discourse, maybe to some implicit ethical contract of blogging... but more than anything, I think it's dangerous to the person speaking through another name. What do we lose (and what new burdens do we bear?) by speaking out without that which indicates ourselves? To what extent can we become someone else, someone who might do damage to what we are seeking to become?

Of course, this doesn't answer the question of whether Whelan should have outed Blevins or not. But it seems that, even if he shouldn't have, his concern was legitimate. All of Blevins' reasons for pseudonymity- protecting family, employment, etc.- were on the line with Whelan as well, and Blevin did not hesitate in leveling criticisms at the risk of these things when he felt it was justifiable to do so against Whelan. In fact it's worth noting that all of these reasons for pseudonymity are extrinsic and based on one's perceived standing. There has been precious little mention of how the abandoning of one's name when speaking might affect oneself.

I agree with the conclusion of another good piece on the affair, that "Whelan committed a minor infraction of manners at worst." It's especially ironic, I think, that Blevins has said in response to his outing that "blogging is not for the thin-skinned," considering he's saying as much in a post where he bemoans his own outing. In Blevins' defense, he seems to have moved on (though only after an apology, which the thick-skinned presumably wouldn't need).

Finally, two quick comment on my approach here at clavi non defixi-

1. This sort of episode is part of why my blog is mostly concerned with the nuts-and-bolts of theology and scholarly work. My sense is that commentary-style blogging can easily get into arguments that we regret down the line and half-baked assertions now out there for all to see. Half-baked assertions are also what makes blogs so helpful... they lead us to sharpen these ideas. But in the case of any very extensive commentary, I feel that it's better to publish in a more established manner; to edit, to review, to get in print. That's just my approach- I'm not saying other approaches are wrong, but that's part of why I avoid such commentary here. Also because I'm simply more interested in providing tools for theologians and others involved in academia.

2. I don't have any sort of posting policy here at clavi non defixi. I don't like the idea of comment moderation very much, because of how it can frustrate discussion. I do of course reserve the right to delete comments that I think are inappropriate, but I don't know if that's really ever had to happen here. I'm also fine with pseudonyms or anonymous posts if that's what people prefer. My above statements on the Whelan-Blevins affair shouldn't be taken as a discouragement of those who disagree or do anonymous/pseudonymous posting.


  1. Speaking of Kierkegaard...But it's a fundamentally different matter when a pseudonym is being employed as an artistic device, as is the case with SK. On the occasions when I've invoked a pseudonym, it's mostly used to avert accountability--not because I'm a coward and wouldn't indite the words openly, but because I'm more often than not too lazy to supply anything more than a perfunctory justification. And who wants that attached to their real name!?

  2. Yeah, holding oneself accountable to the lurkers (supervisors or otherwise) is reason enough for me.