Dangerous ideas and pseudonyms

A new philosophy journal offers authors the controversial option of publishing under a pseudonym.

The first issue of the open access, peer reviewed Journal of Controversial Ideas was published in April of this year. Co-headed by philosopher Peter Singer, the Journal permits authors the option of publishing their work under a pseudonym. Singer, a philosopher largely known for his divisive arguments, cites the aim of the journal to be the promotion of “free inquiry on controversial topics”.

In its debut issue, published articles range from debates on the moral permissibility of black face makeup to critiques of ‘no platforming’ practices on university campuses. Three out of ten authors chose to publish under pseudonyms, as doing so is merely an option and not a requirement of the journal.

In its opening editorial, founders Singer, Jeff McMahan and Francesca Minerva address the following question: “Why should academics be free to write and teach whatever they want, including what most people find tasteless, unnecessarily provocative, or even dangerous?”. Their response largely follows the argument of renowned free speech philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill, writing in the mid-19th century, argued that the suppression of particular ideas denies societies the capacity to adequately engage with potentially valuable and transformative opinions. It is also argued that content which is taken by some to be harmful still warrants thoughtful, democratic deliberation. Doing so achieves more desirable, liberal outcomes in that no particular political party, multinational company, or individual is granted the capacity to definitively determine what is and isn’t ‘harmful’.

It is in this way that the Journal of Controversial Ideas is largely taken to be responding to concerns regarding the commonly discussed phenomena of ‘cancel culture’. The term ‘cancel culture’ aims to describe a particular form of public response to seemingly controversial content. This may involve the removal of ‘cancelled’ content from particular platforms, an endorsed public shaming of the content’s author, or some form of reparations being demanded from authors themselves. ‘Cancel culture’ largely refers to a cultural attitude towards content, most commonly targeting material which is not technically illegal but is nonetheless taken to be morally reprehensible.

The founders of the Journal of Controversial Ideas argue that the denial of open discussion inflicted by cultures which endorse cancellation does not result in the disappearance, nor the resolution, of controversial ideas. Rather, particular ideas and beliefs continue to circulate in contexts where their constitutive arguments fail to be adequately critiqued and exposed to counterargument.

The denial to publish particular opinions on the moral permissibility of black face, for example, does not result in such opinions disappearing.

Rather, those who align with particular belief sets may simply be corralled into online circles which are entirely devoid of debate and epistemic friction.

Importantly, inadequate exposure to beliefs which contrast with our own can leave us intellectually stunted. As Mill argues, failing to engage with opinions counter to our pre-existing beliefs increases the risks that errors in our current beliefs may harden. Coming into contact with ideas which contrast with our own allows us a better chance at re-interrogating them, giving us the opportunity to fine tune our ideas, or perhaps to abandon them altogether. Existing in echo chambers denies us this possibility for growth.

There are many people in favour of encouraging unique and controversial academic discourse who simultaneously take issue with the possibility for authors to publish such content under pseudonyms. Patrick Stokes, associate professor of philosophy at Deakin University, suggests the Journal of Controversial Ideas runs the risk of acting as “a safe-house for ideas that couldn’t withstand moral scrutiny”. Stokes questions whether authors are prepared to “face up to moral liability” which they are taking on by publishing opinions on potentially objectionable and offensive matters.

The tension of the debate regarding the use of pseudonyms appears to turn on the idea that authors need to be held accountable for the ideas they produce and distribute. But what does accountability and moral liability desirably involve?

It is unclear what the benefit definitively is of requiring philosophers to publish under their actual name. Access to a diverse array of ideas allows both academics and members of the public to improve upon their own. Fostering such diversity requires that authors do not fear vicious personal attacks, nor that their gender or race implicitly impacts their chances of publication. Rather, we need to create environments, and academic spaces, which encourage the pursuit of all topics, controversial or otherwise, in order to encourage the development of communities which are capable of determining, for themselves, what they do and do not condone.

The use of pseudonyms offers authors, not their ideas, protection from extreme and potentially dangerous backlash.

The moral scrutiny and liability which Stokes fears losing are not practices put at risk when authors employ pseudonyms. Ad hominem is a logical fallacy in which an argument is rebutted by attacking the speaker rather than the argument made by speaker. An example of this is when an author’s race or gender is said to invalidate the content of their argument. Pseudonyms may be thought of as a useful protection mechanism against the ad hominem fallacy by requiring that thorough critique is levelled at the content of one’s argument rather than the author themselves.

Our capacity to scrutinise philosophical arguments is not hindered when we no longer have free access to an author’s Twitter.

Moral outrage can be expressed through reason and argument, and such a response should be seen as more desirable than those which aim to name and shame authors in absence of adequate engagement with the content of the argument in question. Publications which are deemed to be threatening, offensive and insulting are those which most require our comprehensive engagement. Vituperative outbursts certainly fail to achieve the desired ends of resolving potential harms caused by a publication’s content.

There are additional benefits which the use of pseudonyms may work to overcome. Research on both implicit bias and the role of gender bias in manuscript evaluations reveal potential obstacles which contribute to women’s underrepresentation in philosophy.

Pseudonyms may potentially act as a useful tool to avoid overt or implicit bias faced by women and other minorities in philosophical publications.

Rightly or wrongly, some academics fear backlash due to the content of particular publications. Subsequently, many choose not to pursue research on controversial matters or decide not to publish work which they fear may cause offense or insult. Societies are worse off when there is narrowing of the diversity of opinions available for public scrutiny. In some cases, dangerous ideas fail to be adequately interrogated and critiqued, in other cases, new and improved ideas go unconsidered.

Providing authors shelter through the use of pseudonyms does not negate the possibility for adequate moral scrutiny and liability to occur. A total absence of such publications in the public arena does negate such a possibility. As such, the Journal of Controversial Ideas can be heralded for encouraging the ongoing development of values and beliefs central to both good philosophical discourse and strong social systems.

Do you think authors should be allowed to publish under pseudonyms? Let us know in the comments.

Georgia Fagan has an academic and professional background in applied ethics, feminism and humanitarian aid. They are currently completing a Masters of Philosophy at the University of Sydney on the topic of gender equality and pragmatic feminist ethics. Georgia also holds a degree in Psychology and undertakes research on cross-cultural feminist initiatives in Bangladeshi refugee camps.

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