Despite how lawmakers and law enforcement in certain places treat them, masks are neutral things. They can be used to facilitate crime, of course, but they can also be used to bring justice, to fight power that is unethically used. Or they can be used neutrally, to give us some space to explore new behaviors or new identities separated from the continuity of the rest of our lives.
That’s what masks do, of course. While you’re wearing a mask, you’re free the burden of being the person you’ve always been. A masked person doesn’t feel the social pressure of what “everyone already knows” about them. They can explore different behaviors, different preferences, different levels of risk without violating anyone’s expectations. They can shed history that has resulted in trust, and they can shed history that has resulted in wariness.
Conversely, a person who wears a mask while behaving in ways they normally would not doesn’t change the way anyone who knows them without the mask views them. They are insulated from the consequences of their actions, for better or for worse. Those around them only see part of the person they’re dealing with and aren’t likely to accidentally uncover the rest.
Because masks are neutral, there is no one common thing to be said about the ethics of wearing masks. The same is true for the ethics of unmasking.
There are circumstances in which unmasking someone, tying all of their behavior and circumstances to one single identity is clearly unethical. It adds no good to the world. It stops the good that someone does while masked. It causes direct harm to the person unmasked or indirect harm by preventing others from adopting a mask even for good reasons. Consistent identity has no inherent moral imperative of its own to offset any of that.
There are cases in which unmasking is clearly the ethical course of action. When we uncover the identity of a serial killer, no one worries that we’ve done something wrong. We protect people who would be hurt. We meet our societal imperative to regulate extreme, non-consensual behavior. We end a gross, unjustified power imbalance. Everyone is satisfied except the person unmasked.
Obviously, most cases are not so clear-cut. People who use a mask for a single purpose are relatively rare. They may act in both pro-social and anti-social ways behind the same mask. They may face risks we agree are unaceeptable without the mask while still being abusive with the mask. We may do some damage to the social contract in unmasking someone who is using their mask to damage that same social contract. We don’t always get to make tidy decisions.
Obviously, I’m refering to the discussions and debates about “doxxing” people who harass and abuse others online while sitting behind a pseudonym. There has been a lot of simplistic rule-making in these discussions, and frankly, it annoys me, almost as much as taking a concept like doxxing (which refers to a shared invasion of privacy) and applying it in a way that suggests that those who have been abused have any obligation to protect their abusers’ information.
That is what these recent arguments boil down to. No one disagrees that a pseudonym is a valuable property. Very few people disagree that people who use a pseudonym should be able to comfortably use that pseudonym for normal online interactions without being afraid the mask will be ripped off. Nobody disagrees that some people will not hesitate to get behind others’ masks for bad reasons.
What is in dispute is, when someone is abused by a person using a pseudonym, what responsibility does the abused have to the tool of pseudonymity as a whole and to everyone who uses it. The scenario in question is this:
- A pseudonymous person engages in social behavior that is clearly outside of community standards.
- For whatever reason (the abuser provides personal information on purpose or carelessly, the abused does some research to see whether they need to be worried about the person abusing them, a third-party looks into the situation and passes information along) the person being abused finds out what identity the abuser’s pseudonym is protecting.
- The person being abused faces a decision about whether to continue to protect that identity or to make it public.
In this situation, the abused typically faces a few standard arguments why they should not make the abuser’s hidden identity known to everyone. Thinking them through, I’m not sure I find any of them convincing.
This is just about punishment/revenge.
There are two things about this argument that bother me. The first is that it simply isn’t true. While any individual may be motivated by revenge to out their abuser, there are good reasons to do so. Our society tends to view abusive behavior as something personal that happens between two individuals, but this is a distorted picture. It’s possible that someone may abuse just one target over the course of their life, but that doesn’t seem to be common. Abusive behavior is a way of dealing with people abusers don’t like or can’t cope with, or sometimes, people they simply think they can get away with abusing. Someone who abuses one person will likely abuse another.
There is value to the abused knowing who is abusing them and knowing that they’ve abused others. It helps the abused understand that they didn’t invite the abuse. It helps to track patterns of abuse and to understand the degree of threat the abused is facing. Being able to establish a pattern helps when the abused goes looking for help.
All of these things are easier to do when all of the abuser’s behavior is tied to one central identity. The entire point of a pseudonym is that it permits separation of identities and isolates behavior in one realm from behavior in another. Lifting the mask allows everyone to see what they’re dealing with.
The other thing I object to about this argument is the assumption that punishment is a bad thing. Arbitrary punishment is bad, of course. Being arbitrary, it accomplishes nothing. Tying social consequences to social behavior, however, is how we function together. Isolating people from the just consequences of their actions is not a benefit to us.
There may be unintended consequences to the person behind the pseudonym.
I absolutely agree that outing someone as an abuser in a particular context may out them as some other identity that we typically consider to be deserving of protection. In the cases under consideration, this typically means outing someone as an atheist, although it could also be anything else that person has revealed using the same pseudonym.
I don’t agree that this possibility creates an obligation in the abused to refrain from outing their abuser. At best, I would say it creates an obligation on the part of the person who feels abused to give serious thought as to whether the behavior in questions crosses a threshold that clearly constitutes abuse.
Once that threshold is crossed, however, asking the abused to be responsible for their abuser–or demanding it–is behavior I find repellent. The abused don’t ask for abuse. They aren’t given an opportunity to reject that responsibility by opting out of being abused. Requiring them to act in their abusers best interest or to consider that interest in protecting themselves and others is tying them more tightly to their abusers in ways I consider frankly unethical.
This creates a precedent for outing pseudonyms./This is stooping to their level.
People with pseudonyms are already being outed. In fact, that’s one form the abuse in this community/these movements has taken. I understand the impulse to try to put this behavior entirely off limits. I simply don’t agree with it. When there are societal benefits to denying people the ability to misuse the tool of pseudonymity, when there are benefits to abusers’ targets to knowing their abusers’ identities, I can’t say that this behavior should never be used.
Nor can I agree that it constitutes the same behavior when done for good reasons as when done for bad reasons. Are we “stooping to the level” of a kidnapper if we hold a criminal until the police show up? Are we “stooping to the level” of a thief if we take something sharp away from people we have good reason to believe mean to do themselves or others harm? I’ll step out on a limb, here, and say, “No.”
We need to get more sophisticated on the ethics of unmasking pseudonyms. Too many of us live too much of our lives online to allow for slogans and black-and-white decrees to stand in for effective management of our online communities. If we have the ability to collectively agree that a comment consisting of nothing but a word followed by an asterix means that the poster is correcting prior spelling, we can manage to talk about when it’s appropriate to out pseudonymous users rather than simply asserting that it always is or always isn’t.
So, where does all that leave us on the question of outing?
Image: Detail of “little face” by Joel Cooper. Some rights reserved.