AKMA is toying with thoughts about identity, integrity, accountability, and anonymity. I know I am probably getting into water that’s deeper than that in which I normally care to wade, or hotter, or something, but let’s press on my mental zit and see what pops out, shall we?
He says :
I started with the premise that âidentityâ functions as a principle of continuity. That is to some extent a constructed principle; Iâm not the same person I was thirty or even fifteen years ago, not by a long chalk.
At the same time, what about people who decide (for plausible or pernicious reasons) to cultivate more than one âidentityâ? That is, what about people who deliberately disrupt the continuity that ordinarily characterizes our identity? When a blogger chooses to keep his or her âreal nameâ concealed, so as not to be associated with the observations contained in the blog, he or she may be evading accountability in a way that warrants criticism.
Here, before we even get to the parts that I wanted to talk about, I have to stop, scratch my noggin, spit and ponder a bit. There is something to be said, certainly, for the idea that ‘identity functions as a principle of continuity’. I understand this to mean that the primary persona that the world-at-large identifies as me (and mark that word ‘primary – I want to come back to it) exists and is generally agreed upon as a result (if not in whole, at least in part) of the fact that it has been to some degree consistent over time. In other words, people have certain well-founded expectations and assumptions about me based on the behaviours I have publicly exhibited over time, and are reasonably safe in basing guesses about my future behaviour on those observations they have made.
This public identity is unitary and unique – the very word ‘identity’ seems to point to that. And this is as it should be : if we could not make reasonable guesses about the behaviour of the people with whom we interact, if we were totally unable to predict their actions and reactions, we’d be in a fine mess, now wouldn’t we?
But it seems to me that the leap from this to discussion of integrity, accountability, and anonymity misses an important step. I am strongly drawn to the idea that we harbour a multiplicity of selves, of personas within us, any one or more of which may be our current interface to the world, rather than a single ‘identity’. I’m reminded of the quote from Antonio Tabucchi’s Pereira Declares Jonathon used back in February :
Well, said Dr Cardoso, it means that to believe in a “self” as a distinct entity, quite distinct from the infinite variety of all the other “selves” that we have within us, is a fallacy, the naive illusion of the single unique soul we inherit from Christian tradition, whereas Dr Ribot and Dr Janet see the personality as a confederation of numerous souls, because within us we each have numerous souls, don’t you think, a confederation which agrees to put itself under the government of one ruling ego. Dr Cardoso made a brief pause and then continued: What we think of as ourselves, our inward being, is only an effect, not a cause, and what’s more it is subject to the control of a ruling ego which has imposed its will on the confederation of our souls, so in the case of another ego arising, one stronger and more powerful, this ego overthrows the first ruling ego, takes its place and acquires the chieftainship of the cohort of souls, or rather the confederation, and remains in power until it is in turn overthrown by yet another ruling ego, either by frontal attack or by slow nibbling away. It may be, concluded Dr Cardoso, that after slowly nibbling away in you some ruling ego is gaining the chieftainship of your confederation of souls, Dr Pereira, and there’s nothing you can do about it except perhaps give it a helping hand whenever you get the chance.
I’m not sure if I’m willing to go all the way to ‘Confederacy of Souls’, but hopefully you see what I’m getting at here.
Now, although I will grant that continuity is a principle of identity, I’m not sure that ‘identity’ is the scab we need to pick at here. Taking as seriously as I do the possibility that there may not be a singular me as much as a multiple one, AKMA’s connection from ‘identity’ to ‘integrity’ feels tenuous to me.
Iâd like to make a connection between âidentityâ and âintegrity,â so that I can work with that stipulated continuity as a lever on ethical problems. [...] That would go along very nicely, so that âintegrityâ could stand both for âmorally reliable behaviorâ and âpersonal coherence.â
It’s possible (or, given my track record, likely) that I am misunderstanding, here, in which case see! look at my ass hanging out there in the wind!, but, like Jonathon, the me-as-multiplicity explanation meshes better with my lived experience than any other. I am a boozy wild-eyed country-boy, yes, but I am a reasonably urbane univeristy professor as well. I am a tender and considerate husband, but a merciless opponent to those who attempt to harm to me or mine. I am an occasional misanthrope who donates to charities. (I am the wonderchicken!) I am a multitude, integrated better on some days than others.
Am I displaying less ‘integrity’, in the sense that I think AKMA is using it, when one of those people that is me is temporarily to the fore, as opposed to another? For some people who know me there is more continuity, for example, in the ‘stavrosthewonderchicken’ persona, which first appeared on Metafilter in November 2000, than there is in the ‘Real Me’, the corporeal one, which has lived here in Korea since August 2001.
Are these two people identical? No, not precisely. But then, none of the ‘souls’ swarming within me are coterminous at all points, either. There is overlap, there are spiky bits that stick out and poke you in the eye, if you’re not careful.
The question becomes : is the ‘wonderchicken’ subsumed within the ‘real me’, and if so, which ‘me’, or vice-versa? Or is stavros just another of the continuous, predictable, real elements of myself, the one which is my primary interface to the web, in the same way that ProfessorMan is my primary interface to the world at work, and AngryGuy is my primary interface with people who try to f–k with me?
The next question that pops up is : does the fact that I do not use the name that I was given by my parents, in my writing here and elsewhere make me ‘anonymous’ for the purposes of my interactions with people on the internet, in any real sense?
I don’t feel that it does. Although AKMA is right to suggest that “we may want to take a few minutes to ponder whether pseudonymity doesnât involve ethical hazards that we conceal when we take them for granted,” and to observe that pseudonymity opens a door for “the malevolent blogger who uses pseudonymity as a device for trolling, flaming, baiting, and generally propounding outrageously offensive codswallop†”, I suggest that these behaviours, like any others, would through their continuity over time lead to an ‘identity’ every bit as valid as the one that the Evil Blogger used in his or her real, corporeal, life.
Of course no one would be listening by then. If an Evil Pseudonymous Blogger blogs on a website and there’s no one around to read it, does it still make a sound?
† I’d just like to mention that I love the word codswallop. It sounds so dirty…