Why “Mitchell Aboulafia?”
UPDATE (April 16th, 2011). This is somewhat quirky piece that I wrote when UP@NIGHT was called “Mitchell Aboulafia.” I had decided to use my name as a title for a new blog because so much of what was being written on the web was under the cover of pseudonyms. As I argue below, although there is indeed a place for pseudonyms, they were (and are) being overused. Eventually I decided that “Mitchell Aboulafia” simply wasn’t going to cut it as a name for a blog. However, my name is still displayed on the front page of UP@NIGHT. (I have thought of deleting this post, but as a professional philosopher I have found it difficult excise a post called Why “Mitchell Aboulafia?” It’s a question that I have pondered too often, both ontologically and psychologically. And one that just makes sense.)
Don’t get too excited. I am not about to engage in any metaphysical or psychological speculations regarding the person by the name of Mitchell Aboulafia, as wildly illuminating as such speculations might be. I am here to discuss the eponymous blog by the name of “Mitchell Aboulafia.” Since you are here, you know that this blog exists. And yes, there is also an actual person with this handle. He wants you to know that naming this blog, “Mitchell Aboulafia,” was not due to narcissism. (Well, at least it wasn’t the major reason.) No, it was related to claims made in two blogs readers can find below, “The Devil Made Me Do It: Blogosphere, Stop Hiding Behind Pseudonyms,” and “Obama, It’s the Name Stupid.”
You see, Mitchell Aboulafia, the person, has been under the impression for some time that a person should be judged by their actions and words. Unfortunately, the Blogosphere appears to be infected by a new kind of virus, pseudonymism, which produces a psychological condition that allows people to say the most extraordinarily unthoughtful things because they know that people don’t know who they are.
Now don’t get me wrong, as I argue below, there are certainly good reasons to use pseudonyms. And sometimes you don’t need a good reason for using one. It’s just fun. (I know. I know. Worf, pictured above in all his Klingon majesty, would not find using pseudonyms acceptable. A violation of the Klingon code of honor. But Clark Kent/Superman would understand. He’s from Krypton and America, planets worlds apart, and even as the man of steel he needs our understanding and at minimum dual citizenship and a pseudonym. But which is the pseudonym, “Superman” or “Clark Kent?”)
But speaking of fun, a funny thing happened after I posted the “The Devil Made Me Do It…” on a few public web sites. I got very little response. No one seemed to care. Well, perhaps my writing wasn’t incisive enough. Yet from the comments that I did receive, I don’t think that this was the problem. People didn’t want to bother about the issue. And if they did respond, with several noteworthy exceptions, they generally gave pretty lame reasons for not using their own names.
Below are the major reasons people gave for not using their own names, and how Mitchell Aboulafia would respond. Bear in mind that there are at least two good reasons for using your own name on blogs and commentaries: 1) it commits you to what you are saying in a way that a pseudonym does not. You can be called on what you say, and you may have to defend your words, which is a good thing. 2) You can’t build (political) communities if the actors are pretending to be someone else. At some point you need to show your face, figuratively or literally.
1. I am employed in place in which I would be retaliated against if I used my real name.
Completely legitimate. If there is a real possibility of retaliation for speaking your mind on the web, don’t use your own name. Period.
2. There are a lot of maniacs out there. Who knows what they will do to me.
Aboulafia doesn’t think that the maniac problem is quite as great as many people think, just like there isn’t nearly as much crime as people think. However, there is no question that women are more vulnerable than men to harassment and abuse in our culture. So, don’t use your real name if you are genuinely concerned and feel threatened. (But also keep in mind that generalized fear is one way of keeping a population from being active politically.)
3. Names are sort of old hat. What’s really important are the ideas.
Ah, as someone who has taught philosophy for oh so many years, all I can say is: if only this were true. The fact is that disembodied ideas are actually not all that effective. Yes, every once and a while they can make a difference, especially in places like contemporary China, where the regime does not permit a free exchange of ideas. But what are really effective are ideas that are connected to voices, people, who are respected and ideas that are discussed in communities. Yet it’s very difficult to form a community with people who won’t say who they really are. And it’s pretty difficult to develop a respected voice if you remain unknown. (Notice how often those who start becoming influential on the Web under a pseudonym switch to their real names.) Well, you might say, the web is a new form of interaction where ideas circulate as memes that catch on. I say: good luck if you are waiting for ideas attached to pseudonyms to become memes. No doubt it happens. But people also win the lottery.
4. Don’t rain on our parade. The web is a new way of interacting and in this world who you are (title, rank) is not really important. We are dealing with a paradigm shift here.
I am sympathetic to the democratic spirit, but this is a misguided version of it. Utopian, as a matter of fact. If names are really unimportant on the web because titles and rank have been transcended, then why not use your own name? And if we haven’t transcended the importance of titles and rank on the web, then how is not using your name going to be of assistance? The people who have influence will continue to use their names. The powerful don’t need pseudonyms. The haves, have a name. And the have nots, don’t want to use theirs. So you end up reinforcing a system that you claim to oppose by using pseudonyms, that is, in terms of power and influence the playing field remains what it is. (Yes, every once in a while an influential individual will use a pseudonym for various reasons, but this doesn’t undermine the basic point. This is the exception, not the rule.)
5. It doesn’t matter anyway because someone can always make up a name that sounds real and how would you know.
Oh, this is really weak stuff. The issue is not whether people can get away with using names that pretend to be real names. The issue is whether you will feel committed to what you are doing if you pull off a scam of this sort. You won’t. (Hey, and as a reader, I care if I am being lied to.) Further, you can’t build (political) communities on fabricated names.
Okay, I could go on. But that’s enough for now. The bottom line is that if people want to play, fine. But don’t make up a lot of high-minded, paradigm, shape shifting reasons to justify this behavior. And consider what you are losing by not committing yourself to your own words, which may require coming out of the closet and using your own name.
Oh, and if all else fails, and you are really worried about crazies coming after you if you use your own name, you can always follow my lead. Hire the two guys next to the good-looking one at the top of this blog. (And don’t ask, which good-looking guy? Why do you think the blog is called “Mitchell Aboulafia.”)