In defense of a defense
Daily Dose of Logos
What does it mean to take responsibility for one’s words? In the Information Age, where anonymity rules, is there any value at all to what we say and do? Can we trust what is written by someone who is afraid to stand by his or her own actions? I know the arguments: fear of government reprisals, job loss, family problems — anonymity has given people a way to express themselves without worrying about any sort of real life social reprisals. But how beneficial is that, really?
Let that sink in while I shift gears for a moment. I recently noticed a comment under an article of mine published in The Daily Targum. The comment was not aggressive, but it did warrant a response — it was contrary to my point in the article and I sought to defend what I had written. After posting, the comment vanished with the note that it was to be moderated, but it never reappeared. Concerned, I contacted my editor. Was there something I did wrong? I wasn’t polemical or rude or vulgar, so where was my comment? He (solemnly it seemed) apologized and then informed me that, due to a change in policy, columnists could not respond to comments under their own content.
Full stop. You read that right.
Let’s backtrack a bit: what does it mean to take responsibility for what we say? I think this is a very important question. It seems simple enough to answer, doesn’t it? We take responsibility for what we say by attaching our names to it. With every byline, we are stating proudly “I wrote this.” We aren’t hiding behind some fake name, so that in ten years from now when someone decides to Google search ‘FreddyRedHands74’ (or whatever) they won’t see that embarrassing photo album from that party last semester.
No, we use our real names. When someone searches for Thomas Verenna, they can get my entire Internet history. From my posts when I was a not-too-bright teenager (which, unfortunately, still exist out there) to my published work in free academic open access journals. It is the good and the bad, all of it, there for everyone to see.
We live in a world where the Internet will — not can — document everything and saves everything. There are moral implications to this as well; very serious moral implications. Where employers are now demanding Facebook passwords and teachers can get fired for vaguely venting about work on their home computers, where a company can legally not hire you because of something you wrote on your website years prior, one has to ask what ramifications the internet can have — is having — and has had for individuals in our society. There is an underlying ethical dilemma to using social media on the Internet — you never know if what you are going to write will end up hurting you later.
This is perhaps the greatest value of personal responsibility, isn’t it? We have the ability to think critically about what we mean before we say it. Before I send off a publication, I always ask myself ‘would I defend what I’m writing here?’ ‘Would I attach my name to it?’ ‘Would I stake my career on it?’ My name on my publication is its greatest strength because it tells others I care enough about what I’m saying to stake my future on it, knowing full well that once the inter-highway takes hold of it, I have lost all control of it.
As an editor of an academic collection of essays, scholars from around the world send in contributions for me to review. I could offer them gentle nods here and there about maybe beefing up some conclusions with footnotes (which, by the way, seem to be manufactured by the ton in the academy) or change some wording to make it less polemical. But I could never tell them not to write something and if, after I offered my suggestions, they insisted something remain as it was (short of anything grammar/spelling related), it was out of my hands. The rule of thumb is quite clear. They have the right to dig their own graves, so to speak.
My only hope is that when someone challenges my work, I have the right to defend it. After all, I’m not just defending what I wrote; I’m defending my name, my reputation and my future. When one limits an author’s ability to defend their work, the restricting party has proven Roland Barthes right: the author really is dead.
Tom Verenna is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in classics and history. His column, “Daily Dose of Logos,” runs on alternate Mondays.
Editor’s note: The Daily Targum’s current site policy regarding online comments by columnists and reporters is one of abstinence. We ask that both parties, as representatives of the paper and its staff, refrain from commenting on their own content. We believe this is necessary in order to maintain a professional atmosphere both online and off.
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