Identity politics, “trolls” & anonymity
Oct 29, 2014 – Just as UKIP and the rightwing press forever trumpet identity (“Losing Our Britishness”, etc) so do sections of the left always seem snarled up in identity politics. Strangely enough, both the far right and “radical” left use some of the same identity-labels to denounce what they see as the fungible wrongdoer class: “liberal”, “elite”, “establishment” (although perhaps the favourite bad-identity label on the left is “corporate”).
Framing by assertion of identity (as opposed to argument) triggers the territorial “us vs them” mode of cognition. This kicks in quickly and (to put it mildly) tends to reduce one’s empathy with those on the ‘wrong’ side. It’s no more a conscious choice than adrenaline is. But there’s an argument (quite a good one) which claims that identity politics increases and/or reinforces “authoritarian” tendencies over time – even among those with “progressive” aims.
Can there be authoritarian progressives? In a word, yes. One reason is that means and ends can function as different domains of experience. Thus one can have progressive ends but authoritarian conservative means. One can even, in the extreme, be an authoritarian antiauthoritarian. (George Lakoff, The Political Mind, p73)
The increased opportunities for communication brought about by blogs, online newspaper comment sections, social media, etc, seem, in some cases, to have amplified the worst tendencies of identity politics: preoccupation with status, “importance” and celebrity, intolerance of ambiguity regarding allegiances and, in particular, fear of anonymity. (I wrote about a similar trend in my pieces on radical churnalism, group generalisations and populist framing).
Fear of anonymity & “trolls”
Given that anonymity is the absence of identity, fear of it seems a natural corollary of identity politics. Anonymity has had a bad press recently, with media focus on abuse of celebrities by internet “trolls”. As a result, anonymity seems to be framed in “negative” conservative terms – as “suspect”, “criminal”, etc – by virtually everyone I read. This view of anonymity also reinforces the authoritarian “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear” frame, which establishes the case in people’s minds for more surveillance, more online policing, more recording of personal data, etc.
Perhaps people should stop worrying about anonymity and pay more attention to accountability, which is a different thing altogether. Lack of accountability for harmful acts or remarks is the problem, not anonymity (the authorities, of course, require proof of identity in legal cases). Identity doesn’t confer accountability (some of the biggest “identities” – eg our ostensible “leaders” – lack accountability). Conversely, the anonymous can easily be accountable. How? By supporting their statements and correcting errors, etc – by abiding by shared conventions that generally apply to argument (as opposed to identity).
Anonymity doesn’t (and shouldn’t) make one suspect. Most internet users, studies tell us, prefer to be anonymous. We need to reinforce a progressive framing for anonymity, otherwise the authoritarian view will become “common sense” in an increasing number of public domains. Identity politics of both left and right takes us in the conservative direction on this, unless we reverse the trend.
Anonymity – a progressive view
In the early days of the web, people experienced the liberating effect of communication without identity. Everyone had “handles” (screen names, aliases) – a term borrowed from the world of CB radio. You didn’t know if the person talking to you was a rich, elderly Alaskan woman or a poor young man from Pakistan. And that seemed, generally, a good thing.
Anonymity threatens the “authoritarian” mindset – it blocks the reflex to pigeonhole people, something we all do to establish a sense of control. At the ugly extreme, you have those who need to identify your ethnicity, gender, etc – so that they “know who they are talking to”. Less extreme, but very common, people want to know how “important” or “successful” you are, who you’re associated with, what your political allegiances are.
Anonymity demands that we evaluate the content of communication without the crutch of authority. No status, no presumptions or prejudices – we have to think for ourselves. Intelligence is the main currency, and no ID card or DNA sample is required. Of course, that doesn’t stop abusive idiots from being anonymous – but then identity never stopped destructive fools from reaching positions of authority.
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