by Theresa Wells
My father was a farmer. Far from being a simple man, though, he was a man of keen intellect and sharp intelligence, the kind developed from living through the Depression and operating a family farm as a business for years. He was as sharply opinionated as he was intelligent, sharing his thoughts freely and openly through letters to the local paper, chats in coffee shops and on street corners, and in our home. It was the pre-internet era, when everything you said was linked to your name because there was no other option, but my father, who always said you should never be afraid to speak your truth, would have never even dreamed of giving his opinion without his name attached to it.
I have thought of him often in the last few years as I swam in the shark-infested waters of the internet. Long gone are the days when your name was your bond, when you owned your thoughts and opinions and knew that what gave them credibility was your name attached to them. Instead we have entered an era rife with the anonymous and the pseudonymous – or, as I call them, the Casual Cowards of the Keyboard.
The Casual Cowards of the Keyboard (or CCK) are everywhere now. From comments on local newspaper articles and columns to online forums, to anonymous comments left on blogs like the one I run and pseudonymous emails, the CCK have taken over the internet, leaving the concepts of accountability and credibility in the dust with their names. The ease and freedom with which people can hide behind a pseudonym has changed the dialogue in our world, and not for the better. It has engendered a world where you can say anything with no consequence because there is no name attached, no possibility of being called to account for your comments. They have become the online bullies and the trolls, free to spread hatred around the internet because there is no recourse. And it is to the detriment of us all, and to freedom of speech.
How can this be bad for freedom of speech? Doesn’t the ability to be anonymous actually encourage freedom of speech? Freedom of speech is about the right to speak freely and openly – and with your name attached. Hiding behind pseudonyms actually detracts from that freedom as opposed to building it. Freedom of speech is not the same as freedom of speech without consequences – what we say may have consequences, ones that should help us to consider what we say and guide us towards developing free speech that is not only free but respectful and honest.
The Casual Cowards of the Keyboard, though, operate under no such restraint to show respect. They speak freely, perhaps, but without any need to consider the impact of their words or even their truth – which is perhaps why one should view anything they say with skepticism as if one cannot even be honest about their name their honesty in all other regards should be equally suspect. The CCK are the ones who will never put their name to what they say, destroying the concept of free speech entirely with their willingness and desire to be hidden instead of full view.
My father would have never understood the Casual Cowards of the Keyboard. He had been through a World War and seen people around him fighting for the concepts of freedom. He had witnessed the world change from a place where freedom of speech was dangerous because of political oppression in the countries where my family originated to a place where in countries like ours we not only have the freedom to speak but the freedom to use our names without fearing imprisonment (or worse). He took great pride in those letters he wrote to local government officials and the newspapers, signing his name with a flourish. His words were his integrity, and his name was his bond. They were not divisible, and they stood together to show his strength, his conviction in his opinions and his belief in freedom.
Just as my father, I do not understand – or respect – the Casual Cowards of the Keyboard. Years ago when I began my blog I toyed with the idea of anonymity in a desire to protect my family, but I quickly realized that what gave my words credibility and what made readers trust that I was writing openly and honestly was my willingness to attach my name and my person to what I wrote. It was the best – and perhaps the only – decision I could have made, because while I too have seen consequences from speaking my truth I have never regretted the decision to not become one of the CCK. I think my father would have been proud, and to me that means more than any Casual Coward could ever know.
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