Having “the right” to do something does not make the act immune to criticism

A US blogger, Ed Whelan, who blogs under his own name so that his legal CV bolsters his credibility has outed a pseudonymous blogger, publius, who lets his arguments stand purely on his writing. He attempts to justify his act on the basis that publius has been criticising Whelan’s blog posts and that he didn’t deserve the “shield of anonymity” to do so.

Leaving aside that perennial rhetorical favourite of conflating anonymity and pseudonymity, Whelan appears to be unpleasantly surprised to find that most commentary finds his action to be firstly unjustified and secondly an unedifying display of petty bullying. His response? Shorter Ed Whelan: “I had the right to do it, and no obligation not to, so STFU.”

He is indeed correct in terms of rights and obligations. The elephant in the room he’s missing is the common civility of simple good manners. When one displays bad manners, then one ought not to be surprised if other people react with annoyance/disgust.

Respecting a pseudonym in correspondence/commentary has been a writing convention considered to be simple good manners since long before the internet’s tubes came to our living rooms. Pseudonyms are adopted for a variety of reasons, some deadly serious (anti-oppression opinions can be dangerous to one’s health), some ethical (wanting one’s words to stand on their own rather than on a reputation), some merely caprice (liking the sound of a playful nom de plume).

Whatever the reason, one needs a very good public interest reason to justify breaching this social convention if one wishes to remain in good social odour. Breaching the convention in a fit of retaliatory pique just because one can is not a good public reason, so many, many people will think that one who does so stinks. Most people older than eight know this.

I say this as someone who jumped to conclusions and displayed very bad manners indeed to someone IRL this week, and who is currently reaping the consequent opprobrium. I feel bad about being confronted for behaving badly, of course, but it was all my own fault. Did I have the right to complain contemptuously about something that had made me cross? Of course I did. Was it constructive behaviour? No, and criticisms about my tone of voice and lack of respect for the person are all entirely appropriate. I generally am far more polite and considerate, and am ashamed that in this instance I was not.

Manners matter as well as rights. Ed Whelan is well and truly old enough to know this.

Categories: ethics & philosophy

Tags: , ,

8 replies

  1. I’ve done that too, Tigtog – crashed on ahead and said and done things which really, really, were unjustified, and hurt other people, and me. It happens, and as you say, the better thing to do was to acknowledge the hurt that I caused, try to make recompense, and resolve to do better in future, and especially, not engage in endless self-justifications of bad behaviour. That’s what adults do. And to me the capacity to acknowledge and reflect on mistakes and failings is a mark of someone who has a mature morality. Shame about Ed Whelan, but I guess he might grow out of adolescence one day.

  2. If there are any lawhoydens around, could there be any situations in which a malicious, no-public-interest outing of a pseudonymous blogger might be unlawful or actionable? What if that blogger has made it very clear that they wish to remain pseudonymous because of, as tigtog says, a threat to their health?

  3. There was a spate of this in SF fandom a couple of months back, too, in which several bloggers of colour were “outed” after they had the temerity to crticise white authors. (The brief summary of the context is here.) It’s a blatant exercise of privilege, and a bullying tactic to silence critics. And rude, to boot.

  4. [jawdrop] Wow, there are some names in the original fracas there (before the outings) that I’m very disappointed to see behaving with such defensive obtuseness when being called out on privilege. Some others are merely doing their usual “look at how clever I am” dance – being clever and amusing is a good thing, but it’s not a get out of fail free card.
    There’s also a lot of sideline posts, some from people with good points to make and some who seem to just want to stake out a portion of the drama. The drama has, of course, totally derailed the original discussion.
    Whatever else was going on there, the outing is definitely an act of intimidation and rudeness.

  5. I want the title of this post on a t-shirt. Seriously, I can’t believe how often “But I have a RIGHT! to do this! You’re violating my freedoms by criticising me!” is perceived as a valid response.

  6. Hm – pithier forms? Though I’m not sure I’m up to the pith at the moment.
    “Freedom OF Expression is no guarantee of Freedom FROM Criticism”.
    “Your Rights And My Freedoms May Conflict: We Both Have To Deal”
    “Irregular Conjugation of Personal Rights: I am Free to Express Myself. You are Free to Criticise Me. They are Free to Mock Us Both. “

  7. I’m not a lawyer, but I do have some grasp of the law as it applies to the media. Australia has extremely weak privacy laws and I I find it hard to imagine how you could be breaking the law just by revealing someone’s identity. USA is different, however and it could be breaking a law over there.

  8. He’s “apologised” now, although it’s a bit late for Blevin.

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