In Defense of Pen Names

Detail of Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull, c. 1805 (via Wikimedia)
The effect will be to allow the vast majority of our society to share thoughts freely and publicly, just as we all cast our votes, without fear of retaliation.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T wo and a third centuries ago, as the new American republic mooted its Constitution, voters cast public ballots in elections so that everyone knew for whom one had voted. Meanwhile, political commentators typically wrote under pseudonyms. Perhaps the most famous of the pen names was Publius, the nom de plume shared by three virulent, anti-American anti-anti-racists whose names should never be spoken, though just this once I will make an exception (before returning to tearing down their statues): Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. Yet many other authors also wrote under assumed names. This let individuals state their views, propose their arguments, and share their viewpoints without fear of retribution, allowing frank debate on the issues of the day.

One of the legacies of the debate over the Constitution, which took place under the protection of pen names, was the First Amendment. This amendment guarantees individuals the right not to be persecuted by our government for expressing our opinions publicly. Of course, the amendment’s protections run only against the government, not private parties, so people still need their pseudonyms if they want to criticize popular opinions or to disagree with their employers. That was less of a problem when many farmed their own land, and so were self-employed. Today, most of us work as the employees of others. This fact has become increasingly problematic for the exercise of free speech. If your employer dislikes what you say, or if a murder of Twitter crows bullies him into not liking it, then what you say in your own time about matters unrelated to your work can get you fired. This happened to David Schor, who cited work by Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow on the electoral response to riots. The Twitter mob didn’t care about the social science; they demanded Schor be fired. The progressive think tank Civis Analytics, where Schor worked as a data analyst, quickly obliged.

The result is an epidemic of self-censorship, resentment, and people keeping two sets of philosophical books — the “correct” attitudes they share in public, and the private outlook, cultivated in secret. While we have always engaged in some polite editing when we share our thoughts, in the current environment a catastrophic chasm has opened between what many people think in private and what they say in public.

A small minority of us work in environments where we retain freedom of expression. Over 70 colleges and universities have adopted the Chicago Principles (named for the University of Chicago, which formulated them) that recognize free speech’s importance for scholarly inquiry and teaching. Those of us fortunate enough to enjoy such protection have de jure immunity from dismissal for exercising our legal rights under the First Amendment. Of course, there is enough subjectivity in the hiring and tenure process that many of the untenured faculty doubt their colleagues are truly committed to freedom of expression. So the untenured faculty thus often keep their counsel to themselves.

Yet academic tenure seems designed to enable someone of average moral stature to do the right thing. But even that still requires at least average courage. A professor was recently subjected to a pyroclastic flow of denunciation for his having criticized a set of demands including, among other things, that a court of star chamber be established to pass judgment on whether researchers’ work meets standards of political purity. While the mob’s campaign failed to silence him, various of his senior, tenured colleagues approached him privately to support his stance — but also to say that they feared to support him publicly lest they, too, face criticism from the cancel mob.

Today, our votes are private, the public ballot has gone the way of the passenger pigeon, and we can safely mark our ballots in secrecy without worrying about retaliation. Yet the custom of anonymous commentary has mostly lapsed into desuetude. Singled-out commentators now can face “doxing” and public clamor that they be quashed, while those who loudly demand that their ideological opponents be ostracized, fired, and silenced can operate with impunity.

I write today with a modest proposal: Editors should revive the tradition of the pen name. Good commentary should stand on its own; if we would have given a viewpoint credence solely on account of its having been penned by a famous author, then we shouldn’t give it credence. At the same time, we will know that what we read in the pages of our favorite newspaper or website has passed the same vetting that it does today. Anonymous commentary retweeted from unknown sources under a pseudonym will carry much the same weight that it does today, when under a proper name we do not recognize. Just as journalists protect their confidential news sources today, so too can editorial pages perform this function for their opinion writers.

This will allow the vast majority of our society to share thoughts freely and publicly, just as we all cast our votes, without fear of retaliation. Anonymous authorship helped get us through the War of Independence, and it helped our republic to choose its Constitution. Today, it can help to restore free speech to the public at large, and so make our public discourse honest.

Nemo is the pen name of a university professor. 

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