Speaking anonymously for public engagement

Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Ken Collier blogs about civil disobedience and anonymity. A recent two-part series (first, second) by an anonymous seminarian, posted by Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Tom Schade, overlaps this and he’s just posted a defence of his publishing anonymous posts as I’m putting this post together (Sunday night). I’ll respond to these because those blog posts and comments are public, but I’m also responding to comments on Facebook and elsewhere, and these are almost impossible to reply-to here.

There’s a lot of interest — again Facebook hides much — and some denunciation, both on the content of what has been written, and by the fact that some has been published anonymously or pseudonymously. I care about the second issue, and in particular whether it’s improper to be anonymous. The logic goes thus: if you have a complaint, be bold and up front with it; this is the path of those who use in as civil disobedience. And without knowing who you are, how can we reach the goal: a discussion.

As if there was an etiquette for this sort of thing. I’ve found an article I read before called “Is Snowden Obliged to Accept Punishment?“, by Michael J. Glennon, persuasive. In particular, accepting punishment has been, for most of the people who conducted it, non-optional. To be present to resist is to be present to be prosecuted, or at least known. Given the sacramental esteem a protest arrest has among some Unitarian Universalists — one that never gets the white privilege treatment, by the way — little wonder that rules might be assumed.

And we are talking about more than integrity, but about punishment, real or suspected. The kind of thing you can’t get bailed out for and be praised as a hero. Standing up by name sounds noble, but only if you think a world without whistleblowers is worth having.

Part of the problem comes from our own self-conception: as family of faith with close bonds, rather than a network of persons and institutions that have competing priorities and values. Like all people, those with authority (including well-established ministers who may not think of themselves so) think their actions are fair, and don’t appreciate being challenged, or sometimes even having their authority pointed out. Money and settlements are insufficient, so it pays to not be identified as a problem in a structure built on relationships and policed by covenant, a concept that gets expanded and abused as convenient. (I’ll be coming back to this some other time.)

I mentioned whistle-blowing before, and inasmuch as the testimony of an anonymous complainant is a disclosure, this is also a kind of whistle-blowing. It’s certainly a call of alarm. The value of an anonymous disclosure and complaint is to get the item in public discourse, something that’s easier in the Internet era than ever before. It tests the general merit of the complain, pulls out disputants who don’t wish to be anonymous and flushes out devil’s advocates. And this testing and discourse shows if it’s safe to be more public and candid. People who have less to lose go on the record about something they would have never otherwise chosen. (And accordingly my opinions of some people are much lower now; others, much higher.)

For the record, I require signed comments unless there’s a good reason to keep an identity hid from others. But I demand a working email address and some evidence that the person is who she or he claims to be, and I did (and) allow anonymous commentary about Starr King School for the Ministry and the credentialing process.

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