During my time as the Opinions Editor for this newspaper, I often approached acquaintances to ask them to write columns for The Student Life. Many of them agreed, many declined and several said that they were only willing to do so if I would agree to publish them anonymously. Some cited concerns about the impact on their social lives, while others noted that the critiques that they would most effectively make would alienate them within the very institutions that they wanted to criticize. Not insensitive to these worries, I approached my superiors to see what their policy was on publishing anonymous columns. I was told that TSL’s policy was not to publish anonymous pieces under any circumstances.
I understood—and still understand—the reasoning for such a strict rule. In general, I think that people should be held accountable for the positions that they take. Such a policy prevents half-baked concepts from making their way into public discourse, unnecessarily damaging a delicate atmosphere of decorum and civility. But proponents of the accountability doctrine must also be aware of the chilling impact that this can have on the expression of ideas, especially in such a small and intimate community as the Claremont Colleges. Paul Krugman can write whatever criticisms he wants without reservation because he will not be sitting next to the object of his critique at Frary brunch; contributors to this paper are not so fortunate.
Interestingly, although this paper prevents well-reasoned anonymous pieces from seeing publication, it has no qualms with allowing anonymous commenters to troll incessantly on its website. The contradiction between these two policies is something that I find puzzling. Surely the need for commenters to stand behind their comments is greater than the need for columnists to stand behind their columns, as there is no editorial staff coming between the comments and the reader (as there would be in the case of anonymous columns). Anonymous comments are generally less productive than columns as a byproduct of the ease of posting that is an inherent attribute of online commenting.
Aside from the minimal value they add, anonymous comments can also do harm to individuals if the community makes incorrect assumptions about authorship. I will humbly make reference to my own experience with the TSL commenting system in this case. Someone with the same given name—Alan—began commenting extensively on TSL’s website several years ago. I have been continually confronted by people who assume that the person using “alan” or “alan.not.tsleditor” to comment is me. Although I have never commented on TSL’s website using anything other than my full name, TSL’s system of commenting has caused a case of mistaken identity. Being held accountable for what you say is an admirable goal. Being held accountable for what someone else says is rather less desirable.
TSL’s conflicted relationship with anonymity is a problem with a solution. First, change the policy toward anonymous columns. Make anonymous submissions meet a much higher standard of quality (as judged by the editorial staff). A higher standard should be applied because the paper should prevent the publication of anonymous pieces with the sole goal of inflaming the campus. But editors should be open to well-reasoned pieces with compelling reasons for anonymity—say, someone who works closely with ASPC but wishes to criticize that body—seeing the light of day after sufficient editorial review. Second, change the commenting system. No one benefits from ad hominem assaults, unreasoned diatribes or endless one-liners. Additionally, community members can suffer harm when identities are unclear. Even the New York Times requires sign-in for commenting; many sites also use Facebook to regulate comments. One of my favorite blogs (Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish) does not allow comments on its content, but frequently publishes e-mailed responses; this could be a productive model. Regardless of which system they choose to implement, the bright people at TSL can surely devise a commenting system to meet its needs.
None of these solutions will be perfect. There are too many values to be balanced for perfection to be a possibility. My proposals might stifle dialogue in the comments or provide too much leeway for trolling columnists, but I think that with the right commenting system and attentive editors, they are better than the status quo. If you disagree, feel free to comment below—with your proper name, preferably.