Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Naming, Identity, and Open Discussion

Actually, this post is less interesting philosophically than it sounds, though it concerns something that is important to Steve Angle and me in our roles serving as administrators of this blog. This post will remain on top for a bit, then its contents will be moved to the introductory side menu. PLEASE READ:

New Comments/Discussion Policy: We will be implementing, going forward, a policy that comment or discussion authors identify themselves by their actual full names (“last”/family name and given name), at least once in a post or discussion string, if their logged-in names do not already indicate them. It would also be good to have some small self-identifying epithet after a name — either an institutional affiliation, something like “no affiliation, (city name),” or anything else that helps to contextualize one’s identity. Any official contributors to the blog who are listed in the Contributors list can simply put “(see Contributors list)” after their names.

Rationale: We feel strongly about this because of its contribution to the blog’s mission to promote open-access, constructive, and critical discussion. The policy helps to enforce a level of courtesy for that purpose. It helps if those who are willing to put their identities and reputations out in the open and be subject to the judgment of others in this very public forum are reciprocated in kind by those who engage in discussion with them. One happy outcome of the blog to date has been that some folks with widely-known scholarly profiles are often readily available for direct contact and discussion in ways that did not exist in the past. In order to keep that momentum going please assist us by complying with this policy.

Non-compliance will be dealt with through communication of reminders where possible and rejection of participation if necessary. In some posts or discussion board topics, if there is a good reason to allow anonymity because of subject matter, exceptions to the policy will be announced in them. Any questions or concerns in particular cases can be sent to Steve (sangle@wesleyan.edu) and/or me (manyulim@bridgeport.edu). Thank you!

Comments/discussion about this policy, as always, are welcome.

February 23rd, 2015 Posted by | Blog details, Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学 | 8 comments

8 Responses to Naming, Identity, and Open Discussion

  1. Filling in the “Website” field (in addition to the Name and Email) is also a good way to provide information and context about the poster.

    Reply
  2. Bill Haines says:

    I have doubts about this new policy. I think the problems are few and small, and may better be dealt with by mores of civil society – refusing to engage with people who cross certain lines, and by the blogmeisters’ deleting comments when necessary – rather than by institutional rules that have serious downsides.

    Manyul started this blog as a forum for his undergraduates, and I think most of us who hang out here would like undergrads to feel free to participate. Anonymity surely makes it easier for them to start. At the least I would urge a blanket exception for undergraduates.

    Anonymity can also be a valuable protection for others. I like to think that the institution of academic tenure is not merely a reward to attract the brightest stars, but is rather an indispensable intellectual protection that should be enjoyed by most college and university teachers. Tenure is an extreme response to a grave existential threat. The immediate threat we should be concerned about is not mainly death or prison (here I oppose a suggestion recently made to me by a tenured professor arguing against the need for blog anonymity; I won’t identify the person) – though for some of the community we specially hope to attract, that concern is not absurd. Rather, the main immediate threat is to one’s ability to live an academic life in one’s chosen field while speaking and writing freely. Graduate students and untenured faculty have every reason to be anxious about the favor or disfavor of powerful people inside and outside their departments: journal editors, peer reviewers, famous scholars eager to support their former students and establish a scholarly legacy, etc. There’s plenty of politics to be worried about in this field in particular, and plenty of work by leading scholars (including powerful journal editors) that merits strongly negative comment. The dangers to graduate students and untenured faculty are amorphous and serious, and the struggle to find and keep a job is often long and desperate. The weaker the general institution of tenure, the more important are the protections for each person. And we all know how the information age is changing things.

    Anonymity has served us very well. Many of our best and most constructive long-term contributors, good blog friends such as “Sebastian,” have used names that are not both full and accurate. Half a dozen usernames come immediately to mind. (I’m not talking about commenters whose identities were obvious to all anyway.) Surely we would have had far less participation from this group if we required full accurate names, though probably we would have heard some from some of them.

    Granted, some anonymous participants have been ill-behaved. (I myself once posted something anonymously that the webmasters saw fit to delete.) In these cases, most often the party claims, explicitly or implicitly, to be Chinese in background, and puts forth pretty radical positive and/or negative views about Confucianism and the West, with palpable anger. (I’m not talking about anything recent.) I’ve usually tried to engage these provocative yet cagey people in debate, and I think there is plenty to learn from their contributions – not least of which is that there are people with such views. Other readers, I think, have not always enjoyed the fights, which have sometimes hijacked other people’s threads and perhaps discouraged some comments there. It has happened several times. I hope that’s a small price to pay for the general protection.

    Anonymity isn’t anonymity quite, when the person contributes serially under the same username, as I think they pretty much always do here. I think we see each anonymous serial contributor early and actively concerned for the reputation of her persona. After all, even our real names are just what people call us. One might theorize that anonymity should suspend motives of vainglory (though not of malice). But I don’t think that’s what we see.

    Two kinds of malicious behavior that are especially concerning, which one might hope to lessen by the new rule, are misrepresentation of the interlocutor’s stated positions and arguments, and negative personal characterizations. Intentional misrepresentation is hard to distinguish from innocent or negligent error, which are quite common. Protections, such as anonymity, encourage some carelessness at least. We can find plenty of examples of careless misrepresentation among contributions by people using their own famous names here. That’s OK. It can be answered. And important people are worth extra trouble, very much so. Only, it’s not that much trouble. The more serious problem is when someone uses the devices of misrepresentation and diversion so persistently as to keep her interlocutor in an awkward position, between letting the deceptions stand and stooping far down to explain. This problem, I think, is rare; I can think of only one serious case in the history of the blog. Negative personal characterizations— indeed having one’s name out there can make one feel very vulnerable, however unrealistic such feelings may be. Petty anonymous malice has been very rare on this blog I think, presumably it is all small fish attacking big, not vice versa. The big fish are not in danger. And there is no obligation to engage with people who are gratuitously insulting. We needn’t and shouldn’t let ourselves be threatened out of basic protections by bullies.

    There are ample protections without the new rule. If an anonymous party persists in misrepresentation and/or negative personal characterization, one response is to call them out on it and sign off. One can put the point in strong clear terms, since the person is anonymous. They’ll soon stop, and readers will be adequately warned (adequately since egregious behavior isn’t hard to see for oneself). In extreme cases one might ask the webmasters to delete comments. That’s some trouble for them, but perhaps less trouble than the new policy would be.

    Two kinds of backbone — there’s what it takes to risk making a comment under one’s own name, and there’s the willingness to meet occasional mild abuse. I’m for the latter.

    I hope anonymous contributions to this string will be welcomed.

    -Bill Haines (see Contributors list)

    Reply
  3. Bill Haines says:

    Oops, by

    “I have doubts about this new policy. I think the problems are few and small”

    I meant the problems this policy aims to address are few and small.

    One argument against my proposal—roughly, I’m proposing a return to the status quo ante—is that it can be awkward for the webmasters to delete something when there is not a hard clear rule to stand on. One solution is to institute a Committee whose judgments are not open to appeal—that is, something collective to hide behind and avoid discussion. I think that’s perfectly appropriate. (If our focus were on Indian philosophy we could call the committee the “Ombuds.”)

    Reply
  4. Paul R. Goldin says:

    Bill,

    I don’t understand your assumption that fewer people will want to contribute to the blog if full names are required; nor do I agree that it is advisable for undergraduates to remain anonymous. I think the opposite in both cases, frankly. Because of the recent unpleasantness on this board, I’m simply not going to respond to any anonymous posts anymore, and I anticipate that the majority of contributors in my position would ultimately have followed suit. We have little time as it is, and we’re just not going to bother contributing extensively to this site if we come to expect potshots from anonymous trolls. So the blog was in serious danger of losing contributors by NOT instituting this policy.

    And why is it such a good idea for undergraduates to state their ideas anonymously? They’re not going to be able to go through life anonymously, so they may as well get into the habit of taking responsibility for their positions. As you know, I view this as the crux of the issue: people are more responsible for what they write when they attach their name to it. There’s a reason why the anonymous user-opinion section at the bottom of an online news article is usually a pile of ignorant and malicious crap.

    Reply
  5. Bill Haines says:

    Thanks Paul!

    To this:

    people are more responsible for what they write when they attach their name to it. There’s a reason why the anonymous user-opinion section at the bottom of an online news article is usually a pile of ignorant and malicious crap.

    If we were considering allowing anonymity for the first time, those sections would be direct grounds for concern. But we have had years of our own experience, and I think it has been a very good experience on the whole.

    I’m just guessing, but what I guess we don’t see in the sites you mention is people who are well-known by their username—which is the main, almost the only form anonymity has taken on this blog.

    Still, as you say, those sections support a point of principle, which I grant and would broaden. When people have protections such as anonymity, tenure, or being out of the job market, they can tend to be less polite, more provocative, less intellectually careful, more critical.

    * * *

    To this:

    I don’t understand your assumption that fewer people will want to contribute to the blog if full names are required

    1. The Good Ones

    What I said was that we would probably hear less from the many who have been constructively contributing anonymously. My thinking was simple: since they prefer to contribute anonymously, they have a greater wish to contribute anonymously than to contribute otherwise. So an immediate impact of the new policy would be that we’d hear less from fewer of these.

    Further, it seems to me, since comments draw comments throughout, that decrease would tend to yield a further decrease in participation across the board.

    One suggestive example: of the 36 “Discussions” we have had so far, 11 were started by 7 anonymous parties. None of those parties was nasty, and all 11 starts received at least several constructive responses. Of the eleven, 5 are in philosophy /interpretation, 4 ask for information (curricular, historical, bibliographical, or evaluative on certain translations), 1 asks/complains about deletion policy (prompting a positive discussion), and 1 asks about a journal’s refereeing policy (anonymity here might be allowed under the new regime). That’s it. Setting aside the giant Brooks discussion, the 11 discussions have significantly more comments per discussion, on average, than those started by people using real or at least full names.

    In sum, I’m proposing that the new policy will bring an immediate decrease from an important group, which will tend indirectly to decrease contributions from all.

    2. Bad Experiences

    As a countervailing force, you suggest, the new policy may prevent a different future decrease (which decrease would have its own indirect effect):

    Because of the recent unpleasantness on this board, I’m simply not going to respond to any anonymous posts anymore, and I anticipate that the majority of contributors in my position would ultimately have followed suit. We have little time as it is, and we’re just not going to bother contributing extensively to this site if we come to expect potshots from anonymous trolls. So the blog was in serious danger of losing contributors by NOT instituting this policy.

    Your responses to our constructive anonymous contributors have up to now been many, and a very fine feature of the blog.

    I think you’re saying that although you don’t have specific information about others about what they may do, you think that most people who have a bad experience with an anonymous party here will eventually come to participate far less or not at all.

    But I’m pretty sure the kind of experience you have in mind is unique here. I’m certain it’s extremely rare. I think I’ve seen pretty much everything that has been up for at least a few hours over the past several years (I share a time zone with all who might delete).

    The case you mention (now deleted) is, I think, unique in involving a high enough proportion of misrepresentation and diversion to suggest that it might be intentional (could it really have been?). Also there was a provocative focus on describing the individual interlocutors—in ways that were relevant, which is not to say true. This was not a troll; it was clearly a long-time reader of this blog, apparently a philosophy grad student with some skills, reacting to our proposal that a significant portion of scholars in this field the U.S. were being somewhat dishonest on a central point. And this person didn’t use low language.

    3. The Mainland

    This blog has long aspired to gain readers and participants in mainland China. But I believe it is blocked there. Under the current presidency, I imagine, mainland locals would feel less comfortable posting here with adequate identification, than without: less comfortable posting here at all, and less comfortable discussing certain issues. On the other hand, new technical obstacles may be rendering the issue largely moot for a while.

    4. Objection and Reply

    Under the new policy, some of the many constructive anonymous contributors we’ve had may continue to participate, under their own names. These may then feel more involved, more a part of the community, and in that respect be more likely to speak up than before. On the other hand, most are already known here under familiar usernames, so this effect of the real names may be small.

    5. Undergraduates

    To this:

    nor do I agree that it is advisable for undergraduates to remain anonymous. … why is it such a good idea for undergraduates to state their ideas anonymously? They’re not going to be able to go through life anonymously, so they may as well get into the habit of taking responsibility for their positions.

    My thought was that the option of anonymity might make the difference between participating and not participating, for beginners. The option might encourage them to dip their toes in. Participating is a necessary condition for developing the habit of taking responsibility for one’s positions in fora like this, so the greater training effect might come from a policy of allowing anonymity at least for the young.

    Also, of course, serial contributors feel known here even if they’re using special names; that is a kind of accountability. The distinct kind of accountability that comes from using one’s true name might pertain mainly to things like letters of recommendation – and we’re talking about the young. For example, an undergraduate might want to discuss the ideas of one of her teachers. In such cases anonymity may indeed be advisable.

    * * *

    We live in a world where, increasingly, the people we deal with are strangers we’ll never see again. How to relate? This is a profound cultural question. We can institute rules to limit the strangers we have to deal with, but we’re not going to be able to go through life without dealing with people who are for all intents and purposes anonymous. We might practice doing it well.

    Reply
  6. Bill Haines says:

    Oops, the person did use the word ‘rubbish’ of an interlocutor’s claim.

    Reply

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