Monday, September 26, 2011

The Marketplace of Ideas

Anonymous (adjective) 1. of unknown authorship or origin 2. not named or identified       --Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary

It’s impossible to defend yourself when your accuser or critic is anonymous.  To explain: two weeks ago I penned an anti-casino gambling column in these pages, took an editorial stand against going all Las Vegas here in Massachusetts.  Nothing out of the ordinary. In our free wheeling democracy taking a stand on issues of the day may be at its most vigorous ever in our history and that’s great. Every day tens of thousands of folks weigh in on topics great and small and let their views be known in columns, blogs, bulletin boards, on television and of course in newspapers, like this one in print and on the Internet.

But here’s the problem: my pro-gambling opponent was anonymous, unnamed, cloaked themselves in a throwaway email address.  He or she sent me a colorful and sharply worded email, rightly chose to critique and slam my idea, yet then did not have the courtesy or the courage to identify his or herself.  Makes me frustrated.  I love a good debate, a healthy exchange of ideas, a respectful give and take on matters of politics, social policy, or just about any issue.

For all our challenges as a nation, open, transparent and legally protected free speech is one of the things which make America such a vibrant nation, a beacon of participatory citizenship in the entire world. While folks in places like China or Russia may risk their freedom, even their lives to publically speak out and take a stand, here in the United States our right to speak up and out is a given.  We can stand on Main Street, call our President a stumbling failure or a candidate for office a blustering buffoon and not fear intimidation or arrest.  We can rise up at a Selectman’s meeting and speak our piece about the latest small town political dust up and walk away unscathed. 

As the 17th century author and political philosopher John Milton wrote, “Truth will rise to the top through a free and open exchange in the marketplace of ideas."  The key term here is “open”. When we argue, we have a right and a need to see who our opponent is and to then address them and their complaint squarely.  But what happens to truth when folks hide behind the mask of anonymity?  When we or our idea gets cut down by the shadowy, the hidden, the pseudonym veiled critic? How can one fight back?

In the Wild West setting of the Internet, that is increasingly the norm these days, and not merely in a harmless email to a newspaper columnist.  Check out any news or commentary web site and below every article or opinion piece is a button called “Comment”, where readers can have their say. Good.  But here’s the rub.  Almost all of the times when we wade into these real time debates, where any reader can weigh in, these diatribes are penned anonymously. Author after author exercises their First Amendment right to speak up but it is the few and the rare who then also then have the guts to identify themselves. This is no esoteric or limited problem.  On thousands of such sites across the United States, folks go to town and just rip apart people, ideas, political candidates, neighbors, and defenseless youth in cyber-bullying.  The list of the anonymously attacked and defamed is endless and on the increase. 

Next time you read an online article like this one, click on that “Comment” button and check out the exchange of opinions. Guaranteed much of the language and views will shock and disturb you. By hiding in anonymity, the ugly and unnamed id of humanity shows its worst.  The gift of the Internet is that it has made us as a nation and world more democratic and more empowered to speak our piece, share our views, and exchange ideas.  It is human freedom on steroids.  The curse of the Internet is how easily one can become invisible therein. 

One of the heroes of my faith tradition is a 16th century monk named Martin Luther who almost singlehandedly gave birth to the Protestant Reformation.  On an October day in 1517, Luther wrote out a list of ninety-five complaints he had against the Church. He then publically nailed that piece of paper to the door of a church in the center of the village of Wittenberg, Germany, in plain sight for all to see.  Later, when put on trial for heresy, this is how Luther responded.  “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.” 

So to my email critic: please write back to me and this time include your name so we can begin a public, open, civil and fruitful debate.  Ideas matter.  Truth matters.  But finally, anonymity is the enemy of true democracy.  As we debate, let’s do so for all to see in the public marketplace of ideas.


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