Tuesday, January 15, 2008

In Defense of Pseudonymous Writers

When one writes under a pseudonym, or even anonymously, is he showing a lack of courage? Should the content of his writing be disregarded because his identity is hidden? Some, such as Paul McCain, think so. This is certainly a valid opinion. However, I've been pondering the question, lately, and it occurs to me that the practice of writing under an alias merits a defense.

First, let us establish that there are levels of anonymity, or if you wish to see the cup half full, there are levels of clarity regarding a writer's identity. And I admit that when I see a commenter who reveals only a first name, or a blog of which the name of the author is completely unclear, I do find it a tiny bit disturbing. I'm not saying I'm angry, or annoyed. I'm just saying that, personally, if I could have it my way (which might not be best), I would prefer to know those with whom I am conversing. And in such cases, there are a variety of reasons for the lack of full clarity. Some are simply sloppy in their creation of blogs, and forget to make their identity more clear. Some are quite intentionally vague, and that for their own reasons, which I don't necessarily condemn. And after dealing with some of these guys in 'e' discussion for a while, I think that in many cases, we can make pretty good guesses as to who the writer is. Some of us in the Confessional Lutheran blog world, for example, can be fairly sure, I think, who "Peter" is.

Now regarding the utterly anonymous or pseudonymous, you know, the General Scuttlebutts or Priestmans of the world, their hidden identity is certainly intentional. Indeed, with some of this sort, we are dealing with the precise identity they want the world to see. I am perfectly content to hear these writers out, and deal with them on their own terms. In a moment I'll try to explain why.

But first, to be clear, dissociating one's true identity from his writings can be a vehicle for real mischief. It can afford a writer a safe haven from which he might launch unchristian attacks on others. It can enable one to write in ways that he ought not, both in terms of substance and style. This is all patently true. We must immediately admit a couple of things, however. One is that such things are done by writers whose names are known all the time. The other is simply that abuse does not disprove use. In fact, it can be argued that it only confirms the essential validity of the thing in question (Abusus non tollit usum, sed confirmat substantiam).

There are, in fact, times and places, both in the world and in the Church, where it becomes helpful, and needful, for a writer to express what he needs to express under some sort of cover of safety, such as a pen name. Immeasurable good can be accomplished for the Church in such situations.

One example that immediately comes to mind is Matthias Flacius, the true leader of the Gnesio Lutheran movement after Luther's death. The men who had the prestige, the fame, the established position of 'moral authority' after the Reformer died were the Wittenberg theologians, such as Melanchthon and Bugenhagen. This does not mean, however, (God bless their eternal memory) that they were always right. So it could be dicy business to go against them, or to go against the pope or emperor without their approval. This Flacius did, over and over again, on matters such as the Augsburg Interim, and the Leipzig Interim. And he paid bitterly for it. Much of his great work was written under his own name, but sometimes he needed to write under other names, such as Christian Lauterwar, Joannes Waremund, Theodor Henetus, and Carolus Azarias.

We do not live in the complex world of late sixteenth century Europe. Yet our situation has its own complexities. Nor, I would hasten to add, ought we presume to know the complexities of an individual's personal situation, even if our own corner of the Church seems cozy enough at the moment. Lutheran bureaucrats can be nasty, which I guess is my own twist on the adage about what absolute power can do.

Therefore my own response to writers who write from 'underground,' as it were, whether or not I always agree with you, is: right on! and write on!


Philip Wright said...

I agree completely with what you have written here. It is quite frustrating to have people short-circuit and abandon dialogue simply because they don't "know" who their dialogue partner is. You have to wonder why they are so concerned with identity.

I would point out another quite famous user of psuedonymity: Soren Kierkegaard. His art of communication is known as 'indirect communication' and it does something quite useful: it leaves the reader simply with the idea expressed. The reader can't 'color' the reading with their opinion of the writer. And sometimes that is a very useful and necessary thing.

Jeff said...

I do note however that

"This blog does not allow anonymous comments."


Paul T. McCain said...

I used to think anonymous blogging was ok, until I saw the consequences of people set free from accountabiliy for their comments. I have friends who have been brutalized and savaged by people who, frankly, do not have the courage or integrity to put their name on their blog posts. In one case, it nearly drove a dear friend out of the Lutheran Church when he was going through some severe doubts.

Comparing one of these Lutheran blog sites to anything Matthias Flacius was doing, or the threats to his life, would be a subject for uncontrollable giggling, were it not so profoundly and completely wrong.

I continue to urge pastors to sign their names to their blog sites. Excuse making for why they do not simply is...inexcusable.

It is more than a little ironic that this post should be featured on a blog site that does not allow anonymous comments. Now that's genuinely just funny!

: )

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

To both Jeff and Pr. McCain I must say, regarding the datum about my blog not allowing anonymous comments, that it is not something I set up myself; I could be wrong, but it was my understanding that this is simply the way blogger blogs are set. It is also my understanding (precisely how accurate my understanding is I can't say), that this "does not allow anonymous comments" feature merely means that one must have some sort of blogger account, which hardly requires him to make known any real information about himself. "Anonymous," in that context, it seems to me, simply means you must have a blogger profile, in which you can put the bare minimum data, accurate or made up. Thus, as I said, I have seen commenters at my and other blogs, with profiles that simply inform you that the guy's name is, say, "Peter," or whatever.

To Pr. McCain, I have not compared any one of these blogs to Flacius. I argue, rather, that the example of a churchman like Flacius and his situation, should give us pause, and remind us that there are circumstances in which it is advisable, right, and necessary, to write under a pen name. I am not the one who should be in the position of deciding if any one of these today qualify to be compared in any way with Flacius. The Church, and history, will decide that. Your words imply, on the other hand, that you know these sites to be dangerous, and improper. I am not the one making presumptuous comparisons here. Be reminded also that I indeed admitted the potential dangers, and addressed that in one of the paragraphs of my blog entry.

Rev. Thomas Winter said...

Don't forget Edward deVere, who was possibly the greatest "anonymous" writer, although it seems a few knew his secret in his day.
He would have lost his head for his non-PC writings.

That being said, anonymity requires some self-control and responsibility. The reader bears some responsibility, too. One should keep things in context.

Groucho Marx's comments were taken in context and were funny. Spoken more seriously by people who took themselves too seriously, those same things would be hurtful.

Serious discussion requires that one honestly represent himself. On the other hand, parody, or perhaps more precisely, character blogs, depend on some mystery. Readers are looking for the "world" of the character, not the details about the actor.

It is clear that both Priestman and Gen Scuttlebutt have been weaned on P.G. Wodehouse (who actually helped write a Marx Bros. movie). As such, they are best taken with a pinch of sodium chloride, or a warm scotch and lemon. (that reminds me...)


I forget what my point was, but I'm pretty sure I'm right.

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

And Wodehouse's work, in turn, was made possible by the incomparable literary art of Oscar Wilde, a man whom very few, even of his fans, understand. Yet his art remains, and on this count (if not on certain other subjects) I'm with Christopher Hitchens, who culminates a Vanity Fair essay a few years ago thus:

"So, rather like Gore Vidal in our time, Wilde was able to be mordant and witty because he was, deep down and on the surface, un homme serieux. May his memory stay carnation green. May he ever encourage us to think that the bores and the bullies and the literal minds need not always win. May he induce us to rise from our semi-recumbent postures."

RevFisk said...

I'm with you on deVere, though I can't say Wilde was so laudable. How his life ended, indeed, said much for the real truth behind being Ernest.

Even so...bravo for style if nothing else!

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

I would personally recommend another reading of Wilde's works, which were multifaceted, as well as a study of a recent biography by Joseph Pearce, titled, if memory serves me (I am not at my desk), The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde).

calov said...

Mr. Gaba, some of us write 'in secret' because we do fear repercussions for our words. While some can use their full name due to their stature or political standing, there are those of us who have neither and would just like to be heard, as politically incorrect as we might be with our observations. If some would like to call it cowardly, then so be it. I at one time did use my real name when questioning things in this synod, and I paid a dear price for it. The sad part was, those who were the worst persecutors were those who claimed to be 'conservative' or 'confessional'. I sometimes wonder if those who claim to be 'confessional' or 'conservative', who presecute those who use their voice, who don't stand up for anything, would pass the Old Testament test to be a priest in the temple. But I digress . . .

Continue on being bold. I know you have paid a price for speaking out. I agree with everything you write. It is a shame that a certain seminary feels there is no place for you.

Next time you come up to my neck of the woods I would love to buy you a Sprecher Amber or an East Side Dark.

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

"Next time you come up to my neck of the woods I would love to buy you a Sprecher Amber or an East Side Dark."

Dear Calov,
I will take you up on that. I will not ask you to reveal yourself in a public forum, so you will have to find me the next time I am in your "cozy corner of the Church."

Lutheran Lucciola said...

I just found your blog.....I agree with the pseudonyms usually leading to bad accountability. While I have a blog name, I chose to put my real name on the Ning site. My circumstances were a bit different, though.

I made a commitment to write only words that I would not be ashamed of speaking out loud, and so far I have succeeded in that. But if a person can't stop being snarky or hides behind a name, trouble usually ensues.

Nice to "meet" you! God bless!

calov said...
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