Less black and white, is the conduct of those elected officials and senior bureaucrats when they are not engaged in official duties. What they do and say on their own time is their own business. However, as we've seen locally in recent weeks and over the past 50 years with the rise of broadcast and new media, the public has a funny way of deciding what is and isn't their business.
Ask someone working on the public dollar and they'll tell you, nearly everything in their private and public lives is open for debate and discussion. The level of bravery required to put oneself in that position is incredible. To know that with every decision you make somebody is going to cry foul, call you names, question your intelligence, and question your morals; and to still put oneself out there, is an act of selflessness.
In order to ensure that there are checks and balances on governing bodies, there needs to be an effective critical social voice. That voice should include media professionals, opposition (or pseudo opposition) political critics, and an emboldened citizenry. Now, when a critic from any of those spheres writes a letter to the editor, pens a column, writes a blog, posts a critique on facebook (or other social media) they often do so under their own names. It's a requirement for columns and letters to include your real name, and really it's just honest and decent to do so on your blog or through your on-line missives. Why? Because it shows that you are willing to engage in open debate in the public forum, and that you are willing to stand behind your statements. You are essentially treating the person you are critiquing with a basic level of respect.
So what then do we make of anonymous bloggers who have nothing positive to add to the public debate? How then do we treat people who won't stand behind their statements, by posting their thoughts under their real name? Before answering that, I want to examine what would posses someone to make critiques from inside a virtual ghillie suit.
What can be the motivation for putting on a virtual mask, jumping up and down in the on-line world, and making a whole lot of noise?
I figure there are two reasons for making anonymous, on-line attacks on public officials:
- Cowardice. You're just a big, scaredy-cat chicken. Sure it's an immature counter-point but I don't know how to put it any more bluntly. Whether you're protecting your job, your reputation or you're just afraid of people finding out who you are, the act of posting critique from behind an anonymous screen isn't an act of public service; it's the act of coward.
- Conspiracy. Perhaps you think that somehow, if you post under your real name that "The Man" will be out to get you. Maybe your property taxes will go up - but just yours. Maybe all the traffic lights will mysteriously turn red when you get to them - but just in your lane. Maybe the By-law officer will fine you for parking 11 minutes in a 10-minute zone - but just you. Let's be clear here, City governments don't work like that. The governing body has way too many pressing issues to deal with to be distracted by "getting even" with a critic.
Whatever the motivation, either cowardice or the need to hide under a protective shield of tinfoil, anonymous critics do need to be addressed. This is not to give them their due nor to give any credence to their arguments. Rather, we need to call out anonymous critics and make them accountable for their statements because their statements have a ripple effect. For example, if a person has an opinion about a piece of potentially contentious, public policy they have every right to voice that opinion. By placing their name to that opinion, they are forced to carefully choose their words and to temper their outrage. This creates a more balanced and reasoned discourse. Conversely the anonymous post is less likely to be subject to that tempering. The writer can hide behind the mask of anonymity and feel secure that any backlash will safely pass him/her by. The resulting ripples include an inflated sense of public outrage, and as we saw during the bike lanes "discussions", the devolution of the discourse into name-calling, threats and the potential for violence.
When an anonymous critic calls out a Councillor by name, and not only makes a poor argument against the ideas of that Councillor, but insists on calling into question that Councillor's reputation and intelligence, then the critic must be able to face a rebuttal from his accused. It's how public discourse works.
In the country of Burma the government's most outspoken critic (hell the most well-known political critic in the world) never hid behind a pseudonym or simple anonymity. Aung San Suu Kyi faced the threat of torture, execution and threats to her family members for openly critiquing the military junta in Burma. She was violently attacked in 1996 and spent 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest. And yet she has never wavered and never hidden from those she was criticizing.
Call him a lunatic if you want, but Paul Watson has driven his little Zodiac - and later his large ships - in front of Japanese whaling ships. He has given press conferences to rail against nuclear testing, chained himself to bridges, to nuclear power plants, and to old growth trees; and engaged in myriad other international acts of protest and critique - never once hiding his identity.
Here in Red Deer we see letters to the editor in the Red Deer Advocate, daily, calling for political change, public action or questioning the decisions of council. They all have a real name attributed to them. Even someone I disagree with, Ryan Handley, had the decency and the respect for public discourse to publish his comments and his anti-bike-lane petition under his own name.
Also here in Red Deer, Bill Berry, the gentleman assaulted by the RCMP, has been very outspoken with his criticism and call for action; under his own name. Bill is contributing to the public discourse, be calling for action on a very difficult-to-understand scenario, and he's doing it in his own name. To be the victim of an assault by the authorities and then to stand up publicly and vocally demand action takes courage.
All of these people - including the ones we disagree with - deserve our respect, our time and our reasoned response. They deserve it because they have the courage to stand behind their words and actions, under their own names.
Back to my original questions: "So what then do we make of anonymous bloggers who have nothing positive to add to the public debate? How then do we treat people who won't stand behind their statements by posting their thoughts under their real name?"
Well as I see it we have two options. We can ignore them for the conspiracy theorist and/or coward that they are or we can publicly call them out and demand they reveal their identity. Either way, the level of respect currently being shown to both Council and to you and me - the citizenry - by anonymous bloggers, under the guise of representing the opinion of "the average joe" in this city is repugnant, and needs to come to an end. Either ignoring anonymous critics or insisting they show a basic level of respect for the rest of us by revealing their identities, will take the wind out of their sails.
Now I know that some people will be crying foul over this, saying that there is a great tradition of anonymity in public discourse. They are of course, correct. Without anonymous sources we wouldn't have had the revelations of Nixon's malfeasance, the wikileaks-released video footage of US Army helicopter pilots shooting civilians in Iraq, or the myriad other instances of stories attributed to "an un-named source". The responsibility of protecting a source is a right that journalists have long invoked as a necessary defence of free speech.
Let's be crystal clear here. When a journalist quotes a source they are doing so because the source has information that the journalist could not otherwise access. When the source asks for anonymity, they do so because they fear for their jobs, their personal safety or the safety of family. When dealing with large government cover-up or massive corporate wrongdoings, these may be valid concerns.
However, and this is the critical "however", the journalist writing the story, offering opinion and making conclusions based on the testimony of the source, always publishes under their own name. Julian Assange, Woodward and Bernstein, Jill Abramson, and the rest of the legitimate media - hell even the idiocracy at Fox News - all publish and broadcast under their own names; sometimes at their peril.
Journalists are not protected by whistleblower legislation - because they themselves are not the whistleblowers - nor are they afforded any personal or professional protection outside of the guarantees of free speech - as a result of simply doing their jobs.
So, local anonymous critics, bent on creating public discord, you don't get to cut it both ways. If you are portraying yourselves as pseudo-journalists - and there is ample evidence for this, including court cases in the States where first amendment challenges to bloggers have been supported by traditional media - then you are bound by decency to publish under your own names. You might take heat, or get called names, or perish the thought, someone might think poorly of you. Well guess what? That's too damn bad. Every time you call out a Council member or denigrate an opinion, or sew the seeds of public discord - such as during the bike lane discussions - you aren't acting as a source, you're acting as a journalist and anonymity is not guaranteed.
It's just cowardly.