Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Defense Against Anonymous Cowards


I have some reservation about writing this article because it addresses specifically a topic that I have begun to feel strongly about in recent months.

The topic would be that of anonymous postings on the internet, their dangers, and their repercussions. It is my opinion that anonymous internet identities and postings are some of the most dangerous things on the web today.

For a few years, I was actively involved with an internet message board. For the great unwashed who have never had the pleasure, or experienced the pain, a message board is basically an online community of posters, usually interested in some particular topic, who post ideas, opinions, news, commentary, and more based on that area of interest.

Within this general area of interest, posters would both introduce specific topics to be discussed, or would participate in the ongoing discussions of topics already begun by others.

For instance, the board that I was involved with fell within the domain of law enforcement generally, the Philadelphia Police Department specifically. There could be ongoing topics at any particular time involving tactical considerations, particular newsworthy jobs, departmental personalities, etc.

Though I posted under the pseudonym of “The Big Irish”, anyone who cared to know my true identity could know it. I made it available on my publicly accessible profile at the host website, and I frequently alluded to my real name and work assignments, as did many of the regular posters on the board. Everyone knew who I was, if they cared to know.

Over the course of the years that I was involved, the vast majority of my fellow posters chose to remain anonymous. I am quite sure that they had many reasons for this.
From talking to many of them in person (the vast majority would still not reveal their own pseudonym) the most frequently mentioned reasoning was that they wanted to comment without fear of retaliation from city or police administration should they choose to be critical of ongoing police procedures or personnel. That is entirely understandable.

For years I stayed with the website, though at times some of the postings became personal and vitriolic attacks against fellow officers or commanders. There are folks assigned to “moderate” the discussions, and for the most part they did an outstanding job playing referee.

But there were many times when posters took advantage of their anonymity to sling outrageous accusations, or make comments about individuals on a message board that they would never make to that persons face.

Because I chose to post with my identity publicly available, I would at times suffer the attacks of those less courageous. That is my position: don’t say something to or about someone else that you wouldn’t be willing to say to their face. And if you have good, intelligent, legitimate opinions to offer on a topic, be willing to put your name to same.

When these occasional attacks would occur, I would invite the offended to approach me publicly, telephone me, email me privately. Anything they wanted, as long as they would divulge their identity to me. It never happened.

When someone attacks you publicly, and then doesn’t even have the courage of their convictions to discuss matters directly with you, there is only one word for it: coward. There is no other way to slice it.

My decision to finally leave this message board community, something that I had considered for some time and had even attempted a couple of times previously, was cemented after reading an October article by Dennis Prager.

In the article, Prager compared anonymity on the web to pornography, and stated that in anonymity, there is something “at least as awful – and arguably more destructive – that permeates the internet: the lies, vitriol, obscenities and ad hominem attacks made by anonymous individuals on almost every website that deals with public issues.”

Prager goes on to comment: “Some might argue that anonymity enables people more freely to express their thoughts. But this is not true. Anonymity only enables people to more freely express their feelings.

Anonymity values feelings over thought, and immediate expression over thoughtful reflection.” He finishes his piece stating the following:
“The irresponsible, the angry, the obscene, the dumb have virtually taken over many internet dialogues. But there is an easy fix, and websites owe it to society to fix it. Just ban anonymous postings.”
I wholeheartedly agree, and thus decided to end my longtime public affiliation with this website, one in which I was a frequent and active participant.

Now, as a parting gesture to those at that site who now follow the articles at my own site, and the postings at my blog, I will give you one little going away present with thanks to a few folks who tipped me off. It appears that the timing of my leaving this website coincided with a career transfer, and may have been fodder at said site. Someone has apparently chose to accuse me of “do as I say, not as I do” behavior.

First, the career transfer that came through moved me from a street assignment into one where I will be participating in the instruction of officers. Teaching is something that was a lifelong desire of mine, and so a year ago I put in a transfer to this unit. It finally came through, with virtually no warning mind you. I hope to develop the experience and skills here that will enable me to serve officers in this way into the future.

The training and ongoing development of police officers is something that I personally and professionally feel is extremely vital, that certainly someone has to do, and I am honored that someone thought enough of my strengths and abilities to give me the opportunity to help in this area. I was working in a good position, in a good location, with good people. But you have to take advantage of opportunities when they come along in your life and career. So here I am, and I hope to do well.

I have commented before on that site that the backbone of police work is street patrol and investigations, and that good officers and supervisors are needed there. I continue to strongly support that concept, and encourage all good officers to seek supervisory positions, and all good supervisors to seek further management positions.

I also have commented frequently that I believe there are too many “alphabet soup” units created for political expediency, and that they withhold good, necessary officers and supervisors from that more directed street patrol. I continue to stand by that position as well.

My reading of and reflection on Dennis Prager’s article “Internet Anonymity is as Destructive as Internet Porn” in late October was the impetus to finally leave that site, not any cowardice over ducking the ramifications of my own transfer two weeks later out of street patrol and into a training unit.

Ducking anyone? I remain a public figure, with my own website and blog. My identity and email are public. Anyone who wants to get in touch with me and discuss any matter, mano-a-mano, is no less able to do so.

The reply here at the end of this piece highlights the problem. Friends tip me off that yet another handful of further anonymous posters have slung their arrows at me, and I feel bound to reply or risk being deemed a coward myself. That is what anonymity does, it allows the true cowards to hide while forcing the courageous into defending themselves, and it is a game that I will no longer play.

I leave anyone who cares to have read this far with these final thoughts. If you have some idea to share, have the faith in yourself to put your name to it. If you have a criticism to make of someone else, be willing to make it to their face.

If you feel burdened by a need to discuss something with someone, pick up the phone or write an email with your name on it. Have the courage to stand up and be counted, not cower in the corner of anonymity.

Oh, and I have never been one to feel that I have a big ego. Heck, just take a look at me. Few people are more average, and I know it fully. But to anyone who feels that I am important enough to comment about, who follows my words and actions, my life and career, with such an interest, I can only say thank you. After all, every one of us has some measure of ego, and such interest certainly massages mine.

Call it ego if you like, but I will continue to discuss and comment on issues that I feel are important to law enforcement officers and the public at large on my website and blog. I do it because I simply enjoy it, with no expectation that anyone will ever read a word of it.

One thing I can absolutely guarantee is that if I am writing it on my site, my name will be all over it, and you will be able to easily contact me with your own comments.

To hell with the cowardice of anonymity, and any further defending against it.

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