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Semiformalishmaybe

Of Masks and Mice

Sometimes I'm disappointed that I can't communicate better than my cats. I'm happy that they care for me, and that they come when I call, and that I can tell the difference between when they are hungry/thirsty, but I wish they were capable of more intellectual growth, and that they could communicate their intent/needs more directly.

I am making travel plans to visit Pgh and Boston soon, possibly also NYC and Portland/Eugene Oregon, and am starting to apply to jobs in all (but Pgh) of these places. If anyone would be interested in providing a couch in one of them, let me know.

I rather liked this short telling of the story of Roger Ebert's Life.

I'm excited to hear that Debian HURD is being pulled together for a release soon. I'm downloading an image now to give it a try under VirtualBox.

A few thoughts on the ethics of identity in modern times:

I've been sitting on this topic for awhile, and it was accidentally useful; when I first decided I wanted to write about it, this was fresh in the news: a story about how in the ongoing Syrian civil struggle, a blog called 「A Gay Girl in Damascus」 first made a lot of news by humanising the conflict and then turned out to be the creation of an American blogger living overseas.

The second, somewhat related topic is Google's handling of pseudonyms on its 「Plus」 social networking site (no, not Orkut), where users are required(ish) to use real names, which has upset a number of people who are better known by pseudonyms, intend to use Plus for activities where their real identity might put them at risk, or people who are otherwise unhappy with use of their real names.

Some personal notes on both of these are, in brief:

  • I've used alternate identities occasionally online, generally on discussion boards where my actual identity would lead people to disqualify me, and where a chosen identity would lead my ideas to be considered. In some cases, these were due to racial preference (e.g. "you are not jewish/arab, how could you have a meaningful opinion on this matter?"), in others due to a desire to explore and push moderate politics towards less harmful conclusions, and generally to slip by identity barriers that would either disqualify me or cause me to be taken less seriously. These identities are very shallow.
  • I believe that it is acceptable for Google to either allow or disallow pseudonyms, and that it is inappropriate for those who really want the policy to go one way to demand that Google bend to their preference.
In general, I feel that people who have special social needs (or who have unusual social ends) may pursue them, but it is unacceptable for them to demand that others make their pursuit easy (note that this is a major and important part of how I see the world).

Applying this across the first matter and the second, I recognise that the desire to have multiple identities is an unusual social end, and I don't expect websites to recognise/accept/make easy my efforts to do so. The burden of managing that is on me, not them.

I accept that Tom MacMaster's 「Gay Girl in Damascus」 has led to a number of people becoming worried about something that was fictional; as people began to notice that the identity was not entirely accurate, he decided to try to end the blog by having a story of his fictional identity being kidnapped by Syrian security forces, leading to outcry and diplomatic pressure on a confused Syrian regime. Second, the unmasking felt threatening to the actual gay/lesbian community because of normal ingroup/outgroup dynamics being threatened. Third, the outcry over the "kidnapping" amounted to "crying wolf", making the actual atrocities in Syrian uncertain-to-be-believed and tiring/embarassing those who had made a special effort to free a fictional being from a terrifying abuse. Finally, a number of people who may have taken strength from the supposed bravery of someone in her position still managing to speak to the world felt betrayed by the story being told by someone living instead a highly safe life.

These are mostly valid concerns, and I omit condemnation that seems to me either incoherent or ill-thought (some of the comments on the article above are intelligent, some are much less so).

False identities can amount to deception; when is that acceptable, and what limits should be observed to limit the actual harm?

I hold that the following limit harm substantially:

  • Shallow identities - Being a forum member who occasionally discusses fictional experiences is very different in form from blogging
  • Avoiding concern - Anything that might require RL intervention or attention is likely to lead to trouble
  • Not Getting caught - Anything that might actually lead to getting caught will at the very least lead to hurt feelings
  • Positions - Any type of group membership beyond "a member" is likely to be actually-improper, as well as eventually lead to above entanglements
  • Avoiding personal relationships - Playing on the affections or friendships of others adds a viciousness to deception
With those limits, I believe it is acceptable (generally) to use a constructed identity to avoid disqualification-style arguments (which are generally invalid). This is, of course, recognised as an unusual social end.

Is it ever appropriate to go beyond those limits? In rare occasions, I believe so; when there is a substantial public interest, particularly when the relevant group is or may be harmful, for example. I consider the 「Gay Girl in Damascus」 author to have risked considerable harm for a very abstract and limited given reason. He merits condemnation for his actions.

Note that I do not argue that we should necessarily respect the sanctity communities that self-segregate and disqualify the opinions of those outside of the lines they draw. I do argue that if we are going to acceptably inject diversity into such groups, we do so in a way that's socially responsible.

Comments

I can understand the desire to avoid disqualification on the basis of a non-member identity, but doesn't assuming a member identity limit the ability to challenge the foundations of that disqualification judgement? The diversity you bring to the table will go unrecognized, and you will lose the opportunity to serve as an example of an "outsider"being able to participate thoughtfully, respectfully, and coherently.
If a group is sufficiently insular, or their willingness to deal with outsiders sufficiently limited, one loses little and can loosen any group coherence. In Israeli news media, for example, I see communities that are not particularly open to non-jews taking part in discussions, with a number of conservatives chiding liberals for their "non-jewishness". Breaking that power relation from outside the community is nearly-impossible. I've seen similar things in the non-straight movements in columbus.

Of course, maybe one can do both, with one's real identity plus 1+ false ones.
I'm busy until Sep 2, but if you come to NYC after that, I have a guest room near Columbia.
I might take you up on that.