Wednesday, August 10, 2011


A lot of the discussions we have about what's fair to tax seem to refer to questions of how people should “share the pain.” I don't like the way that discussion usually goes, but not because I don't think people should share pain. I just question the definition of “pain” that seems to get used.

And I should say at the outset that frequently when this discussion of alleged pain sharing comes up, a flat tax gets suggested as well. For some reason this is often asserted to be more fair. I don't think it is. But I'm going to assume a flat tax for presentation purposes here because a lot of people don't seem to understand how to visualize our present progressive tax system. Doing so won't affect any of the points I have to make.

Let's begin by looking at how this sharing of the pain is supposed to work. We'll imagine three different incomes of different sizes. We'll assume everyone is paying a proportional amount of their income. 15% is often suggested as an ideal flat tax. But it made my picture hard to annotate. So I'm going to use 30%. Again, it won't affect my point.

So here are some typical incomes. The green indicates the take-home that you have, and the gray is tax taken out. The longer bars are people making more income. The shorter bar is someone making less income. But it's all proportional, so it's all fair—right? Well, we'll come back to that.

Now the discussion is about the current suggestion that we take out more tax on people who have very high incomes. That would look like this:

The argument is made by those who might stand to lose that they're already paying a huge amount of tax. And now we want more. Oh woe is them. Look at that giant red bite. In fact, look hard at it. Focus on it. Be hypnotized by it. Especially don't look at the green part to the left of it because if you look there, you might not feel like the person who's complaining is hurting so much. Just look to the red.

Actually, that's not the real argument I want to make. But it is one thing that should already have you thinking “Maybe proportionality isn't all there is to this picture.” Those pushing proportionality would be happier with this picture because they like the idea of shared pain:

There's another concept I want to introduce at this point. I'm going to call it the concept of “enough.” We can have a discussion later about what that line is. But wherever it is, the line of “enough” is what I want to define as the line where people can reasonably live. It supports sentences like “I don't have enough.” or “You have more than enough.” It looks like this:

Right away, you notice that some people might not make enough. In this chart, everyone makes enough before taxes, but after existing taxes, one person is already hurting. I've marked that in red. And that's with the proportional tax. They had just barely enough, but merely asking them to participate in taxes meant they didn't have enough after all. I don't think people who make exactly enough or less than enough should have to pay taxes. It's a sham. If they're really not making enough, someone will have to help them—either another person or the government. Why take money away just to give it back? Unless people are making enough, there's no real money to take.

And if we want to add more tax, is that increasing the pain? Well, sure, for those who are not making enough. Because they're the ones whose needs are being cut into. Above the line of enough, I don't think it's fair to say you're experiencing pain in the first place, and unless the increase in tax causes you to cross the enough line, I don't think you get to complain about increased pain—or pain at all.

And this is the thing. Incomes scale but needs really don't. Oh, sure, we can all get used to having really big houses, vacation homes, jets, really nice clothes, etc. I think it's great to have things like that. But when you get to the point of not just having them but not knowing how you'd live without them, and not being willing to sacrifice some of that for the sake of others who are truly needy, you're pushing a line with me. Certainly, at minimum, if you claim to be experiencing pain because you don't receive money at quite the lavish level you've been used to receiving it, you've lost all touch. It's time to be reminded that you're behaving like a spoiled child and to be told that you should be ashamed.

Proportionality doesn't work without exemptions for the low end. That's why we have a progressive tax system.

And sharing the pain equally is meaningless because we're not all in pain. If you're making enough, at least have the courtesy to acknowledge the fact. You're not showing yourself in a flattering light when you behave like you're hurting if you're not. The world has bigger problems than your imagined pain.

Enough of that.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published August 10, 2011 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

This post was an Open Salon “Editor’s Pick”.

Past Articles by me on Related Topics
Tax Policy and the Dewey Decimal System
Redistributing Burden

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, fair tax, proportional tax, shame, ashamed, hurting, pain, share the pain, sharing the pain, proportional, proportionality, enough, not enough, more than enough, surplus, need, needs, want, wants, taxation

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Tao of AutoCorrectivity

This was written for RomanticPoetess...

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Originally published July 30, 2011 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): microsoft, microsoft word, ms word, ms/word, word, technology, helpful, spell, spelling, spelling correction, spell check, spell checker, grammar, grammar check, grammar checker, grammar checking, word choice, override, overriding, fix, fixing, check, checker, checking, autocorrect, auto correct, auto-correct, autocorrectivity

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Just a Gut Feeling I Have

A Slice of Life

In 1991, at a visit to Walt Disney World in Florida, I ate at the Coral Reef Restaurant in the EPCOT theme park. It’s a wonderful restaurant, with tasty food, great service, and a highly unique view into a huge aquarium [Mickey butter] where you can watch a fascinating variety of fish, rays, and turtles swim by as you eat. I’ve eaten there a number of times.

On the occasion I’m thinking of, they still had a practice that has since gone away: Butter was served to the table in in the shape of a certain well-known mouse. I mention this because it created quite an emotional complication for us: When we wanted to butter our bread, it was necessary to cut into this adorable figure.

It was just a block of butter shaped in a clever way, but the gut feeling that it was something more than that was quite strong—enough so that I complained to Disney about it by letter after I returned home.

I bet I wasn’t alone in my dismay. Butter comes in ordinary rectangular pats nowadays.

Emotions on Autopilot

My daughter recently dragged me to the TV to see something on Home Shopping Network. They were selling a pool cleaning robot from iRobot. But what had caught her attention was that they had the sample robot “trapped” in a small tank. She explained that it had seemed happy in the larger tank, which seemed to her more like its “natural habitat,” but looked distressed in this little tank. I’ve included a YouTube video of it here; just watch the first 30 seconds or so and you’ll get the point. She couldn’t help but see this cute little device a helpless, trapped animal.

The video that goes here is unfortunately no longer unavailable.
Sorry about that.

It isn’t a trapped animal, of course. But it’s easy to see why she felt that way.

We’re wired to look for hints of humanity. We see faces in clouds, in mountains, in coffee, and, of course, in the moon.

Sometimes it works in a way that is sort of the reverse of that, where we see what we want to see. This may happen by processes as disparate as imprinting, which helps a child detect a parent, or wishful thinking, which helps lonely people on farms and citydwellers with a passion for aluminimum headgear to detect UFOs. In both of these cases, rather than our brains seeing something that looks like a thing and telling us it therefore must be that thing, our brain can, instead, when properly primed, decide it’s seeing a thing merely because it expects to see that thing.

Hitting Below the Belt

So it should hardly be any surprise that when a woman undergoes an ultrasound device while she’s pregnant, she would readily identify what she sees as a baby. There’s a reason we sometimes refer to women who are pregnant as “expecting.” Hormones in her body is preparing her for the notion that a baby will at some point appear. [Ultrasound] And whether she is eager or simply apprehensive, it’s the obvious association to make. But that doesn’t mean it’s already the baby she is expecting to one day arrive.

A woman who is expecting may be anxious to see the end result. But that result cannot be hurried.

The truth is that the process of birth is a process of building scaffolding and doing piecewise substitution. The framework of a child is there long before the actual child is. Each of the pieces presuppose the existence of each of the other, so you can’t build it from toe to head. You have to put an approximate framework in place first, and then come back for the detail work.

So it’s little surprise that the pro-Life movement is pushing for legislation that compels women to view an ultrasound of their fetus before being allowed to have an abortion. There’s a great deal of emotional vulnerability just then, and if it gains tactical political advantage, why not exploit it? An example of just such legislation was recently signed into law by Governor Rick Perry in Texas. The idea is that if they can’t make abortion illegal, they should do anything they can to slow the matter or make it more emotionally complicated.

They’re counting on a visceral reaction even from women who have thought this through carefully as a logical matter. Warm emotion knows better than cold knowledge, or so the cold logic of research into warm emotion tells us. Ah, the delicious irony. Well, modern politics is full of it. I guess we should just get used to it.

It did give me an idea, though.

Labor Pains

It’s been really bugging me that companies in the United States seem to think it’s okay to make a profit by laying off US employees and hiring abroad for cheaper. It may save a few dollars for that company but bit-by-bit it compromises the integrity of the entire US workforce, threatening to drag down standards of living. As I wrote about in my article To Serve Our Citizens, it’s as if the plan to bring jobs back to the US is to first drive wages, working conditions, and health care to the very lowest level so that it’s competitive with most exploited countries abroad and then magically jobs will pour back into the US. Great.

A layoff is a little like an abortion. A corporation is just a great big person and it has people who live inside it just like a pregnant mother. But corporations don’t feel the same sense of responsibility for the care and feeding of those people they carry around inside them that an expectant mother would for any baby or babies she might be hosting. Disposing of unwanted employees who’ve become a drag on the mother ship is almost a lifestyle choice for some corporations.

From the corporate point of view, the employees don’t really matter at all because it only matters that the mother corporation itself survive, not the individual employees. The peers of corporations are other corporations, not people; people are too small to matter. Corporations may be people, but people are not corporations. People are just little parasites to be occasionally flicked aside. Corporate fetuses, if you will. Potential corporations, but not actual corporations. And, as such, they are easily replaced—easily aborted. Too easily.

So what’s to be done?

Well, what if we borrowed a page from the pro-Life playbook and required a bit of ultrasounding at the corporate level before we let them abort all those employees? What if we made a law that said that before a corporation could lay off a person, someone with sufficient budgetary authority that they could actually cancel the layoff if they wanted to had to sit down and chat with each affected employee for, say, an hour. One at a time. A kind of corporate ultrasound. They’d have to get to know the employee as a person before they’d be allowed to abort them. They’d have to hear how the planned procedure would affect the employee in a personal way. Maybe they’d even learn something about how having that person leave would impact the corporation itself. In sum, they’d have to put faces on those affected by this otherwise-sterile procedure. And maybe in so doing they could find a way to avoid the procedure.

Oh, and waiting periods—did I mention waiting periods? I think it’d be great to have a healthy waiting period after having had this little chat. A chance to reflect. Yeah, I know, after a while the waiting period might cause irreparable harm to the company. But I’m sure the pro-Life movement has an excuse for why that’s okay, too. We’ll borrow from that as well.

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Originally published July 7, 2011 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, visceral, emotion, emotional, abortion, mickey mouse, disney world, coral reef restaurant, aquarium, irobot, wishful thinking, layoffs, outsourcing, waiting period, forced to watch, required, ultrasound, sounding out, listening, hearing, seeing, sensing, gut reaction, gut feeling, fetus, baby, life, effect, affect, affected, impact, law, manipulated, manipulation, potential life, potential corporation, scaffolding, Verro 500, pool cleaning, robot, hsn, home shopping, home shopping network

Friday, June 3, 2011

To Serve Our Citizens

There is a recent move by Republicans to try to cut back on child labor protections. In Missouri, a Republican-sponsored bill proposes to eliminate the prohibition on employing children under 14, to eliminate restrictions on numbers of hours a child may work, to eliminate requirements for a work certificate or permit, and to eliminate the presumption that the presence of a child at a workplace is evidence of employment. In Maine and other states, Republicans have mounted related attacks on child labor laws, proposing to change the minimum wage for children and to eliminate limits on the number of hours children can work during school days.

And, of course, a couple months ago, the Wisconsin legislature passed a law eliminating collective bargaining rights for government employees. (That law was recently struck down on procedural grounds, but there is still a chance they could repair the procedural problem and try again.)

Where is all this leading? The Republicans seem to say “give us control and we’ll return the jobs.” Maybe. But so far the only structural suggestion they have is to reduce taxes on those who already have a huge amount of the wealth.

They say the words, but sometimes I wonder if we’re speaking the same language. If you’ve seen the Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man,” you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say we should make sure we’re clear on our terminology.

Increasingly, I’m thinking the Republican plan is like this: We take our orders from Big Business, which has been offshoring jobs aplenty because they regard that it’s just too damned expensive to employ US workers and to try to achieve US standards of product and environmental quality. So when the US has pay like the third world and product and environmental standards like the third world, then they’ll start hiring here again and declare success because “the jobs have returned.”

But are they even the jobs we’re talking about?

It seems like a race to the bottom.

As recently as this weekend, I endured watching a painful interview with Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) on one of the Sunday talk shows. In it he alluded to how he’d been talking to Vice President Biden about restoring jobs. Already I’m dubious that Biden was making the concessions Cantor attributed to him, but even if what he said was true, that they did talk about such things, are we all talking about the same things? Which jobs are coming back? How exactly?

Yes, I hear occasional talk of numbers of jobs returned. But it’s just not true that a job is a job is a job. Don’t get me wrong, numbers are important. But so are other things.

The quality of those jobs matters, too, so when I see the Republicans talking about the need to cut education while at the same time talking about how we’ll need to make it easier to employ the uneducated in ways that don’t conform to existing labor standards, I have to wonder just what exactly this plan of theirs to restore jobs looks like.

They seem to be short on details. apparently wanting to leave it to the market to decide. If the market were going to be offering back anything with good pay and good working conditions, why would there be this all-out assault on worker protections?

Something doesn’t smell right in what the Republicans are cooking up.

Midnight at the Glassworks

The photo used here is a cropped version of a photo that is in the public domain. It was obtained from Wikipedia. The photo is one of many by master photographer Lewis Hine (1874-1940), who wanted to document the living and working conditions of his time. One would like to believe those times are past. Seeing recent Republican plans for the future, one might not be so sure. Hopefully through the power of the photograph, we can collectively remember where we were, so that we can keep from going back. To quote Hine, “Photography can light-up darkness and expose ignorance.”

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published June 3, 2011 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, jobs, labor, labor standards, education, child labor, labor protections, minimum wage, working conditions, offshoring, international, business, big business, multi-national business, multi-national, multi-nat, multinat, multinational, biden, joe biden, joseph biden, vp, vice president, vice president biden, cantor, eric cantor, rep cantor, representative cantor, representative eric cantor, employment, unemployment, service, serve, to serve man, to serve our citizens

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Not Coming Home for Dinner

In my mind it seems so vivid and detailed, like an event extending over quite some time. But it couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds.

I was on a highway. Traffic had slowed slightly, though not enough.

There was an obstacle, clearly. The two cars ahead were moving oddly.

I scanned around instinctively, trying to interpret.

A squirrel. Trying to cross the road. Three lanes. He clearly knew the peril. I wondered what had possessed him even to try.

Like in a game of Frogger, he darted toward the edge, then like lightning reversed course and back, trying to find the safe ground.

Unlike in Frogger, the cars were not neat automatons moving in straight lines. They actually cared.

I think that their caring made it worse. The squirrel couldn’t calculate what they would do, and they couldn’t calculate what he would do.

He dived in front of one of the cars and I wondered if he’d be okay beneath, but my impression was that he must have been clipped by the front wheel. Not crushed, but flung.

Even in being hit, he moved gracefully. Squirrel movement seems always so like a ballet. It must be the tail.

But he seemed no longer under his own power.

He wriggled and flowed like a banner in a breeze, and ended almost coiled, like someone’s furry hat blown off by the wind.

Definitely without power now. He, but also I. No way to know if he was dead or merely soon to be. It would be the same.

Nothing to do. Traffic moves on. It would take forever to loop back and be impossibly dangerous to intervene.

It was just a squirrel. And I’m not one of those “animal are people too” kinds of guys. But he wasn’t hurting anyone and no one wanted to hurt him. Just bad luck.

I wish it had been some other kind of animal, though. Squirrels are so social. As I drove away, all I could think was that he probably had a family. Just like us, he was commuting home from work.

His family probably wouldn’t get a call from the squirrel police or anything organized like that. They’d just stay up wondering. They’re intelligent creatures. They might suspect. Ultimately, one way or another, they’d know.

Nothing to be done. I drove on.

I’ve seen roadkill many times. But never so personally.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published May 14, 2011 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Text copyright © 2011 by Kent Pitman. All Rights Reserved.
Photo copyright © 2010 by CoyoteOldStyle. Used with permission.

Tags (from Open Salon): philosophy, incident, accident, squirrel, witness, story, recollection, tale, tail, roadkill, sad, painful, family, life, death, life and death, not coming home, traffic, traffic accident, highway, highway death, in an instant, in a flash, animal, personal, personally, personal experience, up close, up close and personal

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What is Love?

It's Valentine's Day. A day full of love—whatever that is. I don't think there's any one, uniquely right definition of “Love.” People probably vary widely in how they approach the concept. Far be it from me to tell anyone they're going about it wrong. I think it's one of life's big mysteries, to figure out how we're going to confront the concept. In that regard, it's perhaps more a question than an answer. What I offer here is my own answer, not any Grand Unified Plan for Love you are obliged to subscribe to, just a written record of how I personally approach the matter.

A question that often fascinates me is “Why do you love me?” It's interesting because it seems to presuppose a certain kind of answer. “I love you because you're a good cook.” Or perhaps, “I love you because you're beautiful.” Or maybe, “I love you because you're such a good singer.” Personally, I find this a dangerous way of approaching the concept. If one defines love in terms of a service provided or a characteristic that may be transient, it might be that if circumstances change, there will be no love. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some people do define love this way. Some might say such love is shallow—I don't know, that's perhaps a value judgment. I'd like to steer clear of that. But I will say it sounds fragile, waiting to be broken by an arbitrary change in circumstance.

Some people appear to perceive love as simply a more intense version of like. “I like you. I like you a lot. OK, it's so much I guess I love you.” This too seems fragile, but more than that, I think it doesn't create a space for the commonly observed place where we can sometimes find ourselves loving someone we do not like. Certainly that's not well-explained by simply saying that love means intense liking. So I don't use the word to mean a kind of intense liking.

In fact, I think the part where one can love someone they aren't liking gets closer to the point. It takes commitment to have that kind of feeling that allows love to span the rough times. Whatever love is, it had better somehow explain this whole business of commitment.

I think of liking something as a sensation of positive feeling, disliking as a negative feeling. But love is more like a decision. It's a switch I can decide to flip. I can choose to love. The decision may be for an arbitrary reason. Maybe I liked your smile in that moment. It could be I think you're a great cook. Or perhaps we just shared an amazing experience, like climbing a mountain or building a house together.

I guess what I'm saying is that the reason one falls in love doesn't have to be the reason one continues to love. If we climbed a mountain, we don't have to always climb mountains. If we do, that love is fragile. Or so I claim.

To my mind, the liking of something expresses a positive sensation that can be more or less strong. But the loving of something is just there, or not, or at least it is to me. It's notable for its constancy. I make the decision to love, and after that there's no more work to do. I just love. That's the commitment part. It's a decision that the love will be there regardless.

This formulation neatly gets around the thing some people have where they pester you every moment of the day to find out if they are still loved. Love is not supposed to be that changeable. I don't have a problem about expressing that I love, but I do feel the expression should be pro forma. The person should just know and rely on it. What other point is there to it? If I can love you at 2pm, not love you at 3pm, and love you again at 4pm, then what is it I committed to? It needs to be more durable, not to mention more relaxed. It needs to reinforce the other things I do for you, especially things that require effort, not call into question the validity of doing those things.

Love has hysteresis. (No relation to hysterics. A minimum of hysterics is just fine thank you.) Many people don't know this concept of hysteresis, but it's a good one and worth learning. You see it in a thermostat. Something you want to do with a thermostat is to set your furnace to go on, let's say if the temperature falls below 68°F. But suppose the thermostat reaches 68°F and then hangs right around there, fluttering up and down. Should the furnace go on and off? Thermostats are designed so that they don't. Once the furnace goes on, it stays on unless there's a much bigger change than it took to get it to go on. Small changes don't affect the decision once it's made. It should tend to stay set and not move capriciously back just because you waver a little. It requires a big motion in the system for it to back out.

And love needs a lot of hysteresis so that it can be depended upon. Perhaps there are circumstances that can break one out of love, but they should be rare and extreme, not common everyday things.

Love provides predictability, constancy, stability, commitment. It's there and not going anywhere. It's not something to worry might slip away if you say or do some little wrong thing. It can be relied upon.

Love is also something to celebrate.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published February 13, 2011 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): philosophy, love, commitment, definition, why, like, emotion, decision, intensity

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Using Real Names has Real Consequences

I post under my own name, but I do it with a consciousness of the risk.

I've been on the net (it was the ARPANET then) since 1977. At that time, we actually had user profiles with a place to supply your social security number, and people often complied because there was no reason to suppose it was dangerous. Those were certainly different times. People today are often horrified as they look back at the practices of those days, but everyone's sensibilities were different then. At some point we noticed that there was danger in having such information out in the open, so the data was erased and the ability to attach it was removed. But initially we were more trusting.

I had an unofficial administrative position on one of these machines as member of a group called “user-accounts” that oversaw guest usage of the machine. Guest users were called “tourists.” They were tolerated on the system as long as they didn't interfere with real work, but sometimes we had to disable an existing account or deny an application for an account if we suspected a potential for problems.

Having their accounts turned off didn't always make people happy. The first time I ever found myself quoted by someone on a web page in the early web, it was a remark quoted out of context from my time as a user-accounts member, where I'd once said in email, “[It] would have taken hours to be fair and we're not employed to do that sort of thing.” You can imagine that kind of attitude upsetting this or that person. In fact, in its proper context, the thing to understand is that we already went to extraordinary lengths to be fair to tourists, spending sometimes hours of unpaid time to make sure we didn't do anyone an injustice. But at some point there was just a limit where we had to just guess.

Life in the digital world is not a certainty, and an entire lab of real research at MIT depended on things operating properly. Just one act of devastation by a tourist on our largely unprotected and highly trusting system would have brought down the entire tourist program, and could have jeopardized research funding for the Lab. It was no small matter. So sometimes we just made arbitrary decisions, and tourists sometimes just had to live with them.

It happened one time, however, that someone was so annoyed by something I'd done that in retaliation he ended up performing an act that I'll describe here simply as “having a real world effect.” It really doesn't matter what the act was, and I don't want to give anyone ideas of mean things to do to someone. We'll just say it was more destructive than just sending an annoyed email, and that it involved the use of real world personal information about me in a way that was not proper. It was a sufficiently invasive act that there may well be a law against it now. Maybe there was a law then, too, but I didn't pursue it legally. My point, though, is that it made me conscious of the fact that not everyone “out on the net” was a nice person, and conscious in a personal, tangible way of the fact that sharing information, even information people have been accustomed to sharing since long before computers, isn't always harmless.

My favorite quote on privacy comes from John Gilmore's remarks to the First Conference on Computers, Freedom, and Privacy in San Francisco 1991, which I had the good fortune to attend. He said:

Society tolerates all different kinds of behaviour -- differences in religion, differences in political opinions, races, etc. But if your differences aren't accepted by the government or by other parts of society, you can still be tolerated if they simply don't know that you are different. Even a repressive government or a regressive individual can't persecute you if you look the same as everybody else. And, as George Perry said today, "Diversity is the comparative advantage of American society". I think that's what privacy is really protecting.

And that brings me to the claim that life would somehow be better if people blogged under their real name—if there were no pseudonyms. The underlying claim, not always expressed explicitly, is that eliminating pseudonyms would make people more polite and/or more accountable. I disagree that it would, even if it did, I don't think the cost is worth the value.

First, there is the question of whether you need to know who a speaker is in order to evaluate truth. I don't think you do. Maybe once in a while. Wikipedia is a monument to this because although you can find out who wrote what in there if you dig really hard, most of the truth that is in there is best verifiable by going and testing to cited references, not by going to who wrote it and by testing their character. If who said it mattered, then they might as well throw out the content after about 100 years since all of the people who've contributed will be dead and there will be no one to validate the content.

Second, the claim that having a publicly known name leads to better accountability is bogus. It's maybe okay if what we mean by “accountable” is exposed to personal whims of literally any individual on the net. But then how is that person accountable? In order to make everyone “accountable” for their speech, the claim seems to be that we should expose them to unbounded real world risk. I don't know about you, but that doesn't seem like much of a solution to me.

And while in most cases it may matter that people are accountable for what they say, consider the case where a patriot needs to speak out against an oppressive government. Before we claim that in all cases we want those willing to speak out to suffer the consequences of doing so, let's remember that rules tolerating offensive speech are not there because we like offensive speech, but rather because sometimes, especially in politics, it's subjective what is offensive. And sometimes it's necessary to make people feel uncomfortable in order to promote change. If governments or even just businesses always knew who was speaking, there might be no way to discuss certain things very critical to all of our lives.

I don't know how much of the recent activity in Egypt required some form of anonymity or pseudonymity to accomplish, but it's not a serious stretch of the imagination to think that the events that recently unfolded might not have happened without some degree of protection for those speaking out. Certainly in the case of corporate whistleblowing, anonymity can be critical. When real world corporate or political power hangs in the balance, perturbing the lives of exposed individuals is well-known to be the cheap way to “fix” the “problem.”

Still, even for those cases that do need accountability, all that matters for accountability is that someone (e.g., an OS system administrator) could contact that person. It's just not necessary that every person in the reading audience know how to contact every writer, since it's not the right or responsibility of most people reading along to be imposing judgment or punishment.

There may indeed be some forums that are more pleasant when real names are used, but the price may be that those forums cannot carry the voices of our most vulnerable or our most controversial. It's worth keeping that cost in focus. There is some risk to words, but there is greater risk to people taking up sticks and stones to make their point. I'd rather see words encouraged over sticks and stones, even if the price is tolerating highly controversial speech.

We should be encouraging people to speak and to feel safe about doing so. Sometimes that requires actual anonymity, sometimes just pseudonymity. But certainly it should not mean that “real names” are always best.

If the words of an anonymous soul appear to be causing a problem, more than likely it's an indicator that we need to learn about how to read anonymous writings, not that we need to reform the production of anonymous writings.

Author's Note: Originally published February 12, 2011 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, privacy, accountability, writing, authorship, psuedonyms, pseudonymity, anonymity, anonymous, pseudonymous, safety, hacking