In Defense of “Anons”

Why Jordan Peterson is Wrong to call for Restrictions on Anonymity

Should Anons reveal themselves, or be forced to reveal themselves? In response to Elon Musk tweeting on Sunday that Twitter will now “protect anonymity,” Canadian psychologist and YouTube megastar Jordan Peterson, among others, criticized the decision and claimed that online anonymity enables “Dark Tetrad [personality] types.”

This debate, of course, is nothing new. Nor is Peterson’s critique. In October 2022 after Peterson experienced some ‘not so pleasant’ replies by anonymous accounts on his YouTube interview with Israeli PM Netanyahu, he tweeted: “I am increasingly convinced that Twitter anonymity is the refuge of scoundrels and fiends. Say it and stand behind it or hold your tongue,” and then proceeded to call for such accounts to be banned, or at least restricted, referring to them on multiple occasions as “manipulators” and “demons.”

Peterson is not alone in his antagonism towards the “anons”. Widely-read ‘post-liberal’ Professor Patrick Deneen sparked a minor online controversy in February when he reacted negatively to Catholic outlet First Things‘ decision to publish an article by Twitter anon account Lomez. “Disappointed doesn’t quite capture my response to First Things publishing a Nietzsche-lite article by a Twitter anon. The justified opposition to Wokeism dominating the mainstream right is in danger of descending into very dark places,” Deneen tweeted but declined to elaborate on what exactly within the article troubled him so much.

Gatekeeping is clearly what is at work here, and to be sure gatekeeping is not necessarily bad. But there’s also more to it than that. The first thing to keep in mind is that in most cases online “anonymity” is not an accurate term. Anonymity means distributing information using a name that cannot be traced to any identifiable entity. In the (almost) 3 years since I started IM—1776, we’ve run over a hundred articles by so-called anons, but barely a handful of these were strictly speaking ‘anonymous’. What we’ve tended to publish is rather pseudonymous authors.

Two of our editors for instance, namely Benjamin Braddock and Lafayette Lee, are pseudonyms. But unlike actual anonymous accounts, both Ben and Lafayette have built consistent personas around such names over the years, with their social media and writing published in magazines and journals. They couldn’t simply change pseudonyms and continue to publish in the same journals and/or interact with the same people online without being identified. This is a form of accountability which compels similar incentives to act in a responsible and reliable way to someone writing under his own (legal) name. ‘Screwing around’ in the way Peterson thinks these accounts are free to do applies only to actual anonymous accounts, which do exist, but are far rarer than pseudonymous accounts, and obviously less influential.

The core question of Peterson’s demands however goes deeper. The conception of anons as “cowards,” if not outright demonic forces implies that real bravery means “putting your face and name out there.” And this is certainly partly true. But is that all there is to it? Consider the following scenario: If I, as the editor of a reasonably well-known publication, am attacked and ‘canceled’, a good number of people in the industry – friends and colleagues I made along the way – would be ready to defend me, which ultimately could have significant benefits. Although dealing with stalkers and harassers, both online and IRL, is unpleasant, being controversial can be profitable. It can increase one’s profile, attract attention to a project, and open the door to various opportunities. 

In short, engaging with contentious issues in the culture war and online ecosystem can be rewarding: this fact is in part what drives a lot of people’s willingness to speak up in the first place, and in some cases even entirely. This does not take away from any virtue that the act of speaking the truth entails (in many cases, the person could have chosen an easier and more lucrative career), but it shouldn’t be exclusively portrayed as a self-sacrificing act.

Which leads to the central point: What does the ‘average’ person, that is, someone with no significant online presence and/or connections, have to gain from attracting rage groups such as Antifa as a consequence of speaking up? Not everyone has a book deal lined up, tens of thousands of followers ready to donate to their Patreon account, or some kind of similar career prospect awaiting post-cancellation. Nor, in most cases, the skills, or even interest in going down any of those paths.

At best, your ‘average conservative’, if canceled, might receive a couple of sympathetic headlines in conservative outlets and disappear from everyone’s timeline two days later following the next minor controversy, and then be left alone to face the consequences. This may include the loss of their jobs, and the lasting effects, going on for years, of being outcast and denounced by their peers, friends, and sometimes even their families – not to mention death threats to contend with, along with stalking, extortion, and harassment.

Some people on the online anonymous Right might in fact have a shot at landing a book deal (although some of them have no interest in becoming celebrity figures; their contribution to the discourse seems to be motivated mainly by an interest in ideas and culture). But people should nonetheless have the liberty to speak their minds while pursuing a career of their choosing outside political commentary. And, from an ethical perspective, a gifted thinker or writer with the ambition to write for a living who chooses to speak his or her mind shouldn’t be equated to a lawyer, doctor, or small-business owner with no ambition to embark upon similar career paths.

Would our situation improve from more people speaking up? Surely. Would it be better if everyone would do it under their own name and by putting their face out there? Probably – at least assuming they wouldn’t censor themselves. But how many columnists do we really need? Wouldn’t it be better to retain a conservative presence in compromised fields such as academia, medicine, law, tech, entertainment, or even the State Department and military, while facilitating the opportunity for these people to safely engage and contribute to the culture war by means of online commentary? 

The argument that everyone should post under his or her own name if one cares enough to speak up only has standing if we can safely bet that the culture war could be won inside the timeframe necessary for these people to re-enter their preferred fields without having sacrificed years, or even decades of their lives, and suffered such financial losses that could have bankrupted their families and led them to despair, or, in extreme cases, even suicide. 

Can we safely assume that? Do we feel confident enough to look someone in the eyes with a family and a stable job and no desire or skills to become the next Jordan Peterson and tell them, ‘Speak up, we got your back, you’ll be fine’?

The right to post anonymously or pseudonymously online is a vital defense in fighting the current culture wars, and also an essential part of maintaining the internet as it was initially conceived. For this reason alone it should be protected. This doesn’t mean there aren’t problems associated with it. Peterson is correct to point out that there are incentives to behave irresponsibly for someone who is protected by anonymity, and there is certainly no shortage of hateful and resentful types in such corners of the internet. But this side of the issue is also facilitated by the platforms and their algorithms, rather than just anonymity, and also caused by the current cultural and political climate which demonizes and marginalizes young men with unwanted views and opinions – something that Peterson and people like him have partly contributed to.

As a man who has been repeatedly smeared and harassed by a combination of sociopathic journalists, deranged activists, and all sorts of left-wing lunatics, Peterson should know more than anyone that the phenomenon that most dangerously enables the ‘Dark Tetrad’ in our modern times is outside the confines of right-wing Twitter and YouTube’s comment sections. Dislike or disagree with them all you want, but in our current culture, institutions, governments, and online ecosystem, there are bigger demons to fry. 

Mark Granza is the founding editor and publisher of IM—1776.

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