An acquaintance from northern Ohio read my column online last week about the revamps to our website and print edition, and zeroed in on my criticism of people who leave anonymous comments on stories, comments that attack people or institutions.
He emailed me and wrote, “I think there are good reasons for anonymous comments once in a while. Sometimes people have real reasons to be afraid of retaliation.”
He listed several reasons people are afraid of retaliation, such as fear of losing their job, fear of violence, even fear of being murdered. He cited government workers, “disenfranchised employees” (whatever that is) and senior citizens as three sets of people particularly vulnerable to retribution if they spoke their minds using their real names.
I politely responded that I’m still waiting for him to supply me with a valid reason why people should hide their identity when making a public criticism of someone else.
I think part of the reason that a lot of people defend anonymous commentary, even when those comments are attacking people and reputations, is their buy-in of the notion that we are a nation of victims. There is hardly any group of people in our society that has not been successfully painted as victims by politicians who depend on fear to further their careers and their legislation.
We live in the Age of the Victim, as opposed to previous generations, which were part of the Age of Personal Responsibility. People were once proud to stand behind their convictions. When did we as a people lose our courage?
You’re afraid that if you speak out under your real name, you might lose your job? Speak out anyway. Quit living in fear.
You’re worried that someone might do physical harm to you or your property if you express your opinion under your true identity? Risk it. Stand up proudly for what you believe.
You fear for your life if you openly say what’s on your mind? If you have the courage of your convictions, you won’t be intimidated.
Fear of retaliation is not always a bad thing. It is part of the checks and balances of responsible commentary. People should fear retaliation for spreading rumors or making unproven allegations against someone. When the tipping point is reached that someone’s need to say something outweighs the fear of retaliation for saying it, it is probably then worth saying.
But people want it both ways — they want to identify people and rip into them with nonsensical attacks, but they want to stay in the shadows to avoid the consequences.
Americans have not always lived in cowardice and fear. In fact, through the centuries we’ve been pretty courageous. Our ancestors, going back to our Founding Fathers, frequently risked their careers, safety and often their lives to openly speak out against what they considered oppression, tyranny or injustice.
Senior citizens are often cited as a particularly vulnerable group who need the cover of protection that anonymity provides. Indeed, no particular assemblage of people has been defined, particularly by politicians, as more weak and helpless than “senior citizens,” which, according to the AARP, starts at age 50.
My own idea of senior citizens is more in the 70, 80 and 90-plus age range, and painting them as weak, helpless or scared is the opposite of my own observation. Most senior citizens I know — men and women alike — are less afraid of anything than they’ve been in their whole lives. They’ve been through it all, and they have no fear left in them.
Even possible job loss among government workers is not a reasonable fear, particularly since Congress passed the Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects government employees against retaliation for reporting wrongdoing, and eliminating any imagined reason to act anonymously. Virtually every state has its own whistleblower protection laws.
Of course, the kind of anonymous comments that appear on websites from people who claim to be government employees are not of the whistleblower variety, which would be allegations of actual wrongdoing with evidence to back it up. Internet attacks are typically more in the line of spreading gossip and rumors. It is understandable why they are ashamed to attach their names to such things.
It’s difficult to overcome the societal generation in which we live, this Age of the Victim. I admit that we’re probably too far down the social media road to ever return to the Age of Personal Accountability. The Internet promotes secrecy and is littered with sites that not only invite, but encourage, comments that are anonymous and unaccountable.
One thing I learned from my father, through his example, was courage in the public arena. Dad served eight years on the Lynchburg-Clay school board and many more years on the Highland District Hospital board. He was often involved in controversies, and whether he was right or wrong on various issues is always for someone else to determine.
But he always spoke his mind, and trust me, at age 81 he hasn’t changed a bit. The thought of him writing or saying anything anonymously makes me laugh. Among all the examples I have set for my own children, good and bad, I hope I have set this example — never anonymously criticize or attack anyone.
Perhaps along with other courses in public schools, we should develop a class on Internet etiquette, called Courage 101. A lot of children are obviously not learning it at home, although they may be learning creative writing from parents who go online under the most imaginative fabricated names to weave the most outrageous fantasies.
Gary Abernathy is a regional content director with Civitas Media and the editor of the Hillsboro Times-Gazette. He can be reached at (937) 393-3456, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @abernathygary.