Unco Junto: Is There a Right to Anonymity, or an Obligation to Preserve It?

June 2, 2016

This blog is a monthly series I’ve titled “Unco Junto” (after the discussion clubs founded by Benjamin Franklin) in which I offer an introductory topic essay and a handful of commenters are invited to respond in any way they see fit. The goal is to provide a forum for long-form–and hopefully provocative–analysis in a media often dominated by superficial sound bites. Last month’s topic was “The Myth of the ‘National Conversation.'” This month the guest contributors are David Koepsell and Eve Siebert.


The issue of personal privacy has taken on greater urgency and importance in the past few decades. With vast amounts of personal data available online, more and more people are concerned about protecting their privacy. Many people who are guarded about giving their personal information to the government or others happily share vast amounts of it on social media, but that is of course their choice.

Courts have recognized that public figures (politicians and movie stars, for example) have a lesser expectation of privacy than ordinary citizens, but there is no analogous right to anonymity per se: As a citizen you have some limited expectation and rights to privacy (except in public places, public records and so on), but there is no legal or social right to be anonymous.

The anonymity of the internet has been implicated in the coarsening of social discussion over the past few years because people feel freer to attack, troll, and criticize others when their activities cannot be easily traced back to their real-life identities. Those who participate in the activist and hackivist collective known as Anonymous–adopting the familiar Guy Fawkes mask–are indeed anonymous and have carried out legal, quasi-legal, and illegal cyberattacks on their victims. This also raises issues about the problem of “doxxing,” or seeking out and publicly revealing a person’s personal information online (such as home address, telephone number, and so on), opening up him or her to the possibility or likelihood of harassment. Again, though, this applies to privacy, not anonymity. (This is also not the same as paparazzi stalking celebrities or a royal family trying to get candid photos of children or embarrassing images; everyone knows those people exist; no one’s identity is being unmasked unless perhaps it’s a politician’s extramarital lover for example.)

Several artists have however managed to maintain their anonymity even in the Internet age–no small feat. Countless writers have used pseudonyms for various reasons including Benjamin Franklin, Stephen King, Anne Rice, Joyce Carol Oates, and Lawrence Block. Some, like Anne Desclos (who wrote the banned erotic novel The Story of O as Pauline Réage) did so to avoid censorship and persecution.

One of the world’s most popular authors, J.K. Rowling, submitted a novel under the name Robert Galbraith to see how her work would be accepted by a public that wasn’t influenced by knowing she’d penned the Harry Potter series. A leak by a friend of a lawyer in the know soon revealed her secret, however. As she explained, “The decision to choose a male pseudonym was driven by a desire to ‘take my writing persona as far away as possible from me’, Rowling said. By choosing as her hero a military man working in national security — taking a lead from former SAS solider and bestselling author Andy McNab– she created an ‘excuse not to make personal appearances or to provide a photograph.’… Rowling was ‘yearning to go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre, to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback. It was a fantastic experience and I only wish it could have gone on a little longer,’ she said.”

Elena Ferrante is the author of a half-dozen bestselling novels, yet her (or his) identity remains unknown. Some authors, like Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger, wrote under their names but nonetheless jealously guarded their privacy such that they achieved near-anonymity after the publication of their most famous books. They seemingly felt that merely because they had written acclaimed books did not obligate them to explain or discuss their works, nor become public figures.

Legions of lies have been told and sold by people who had nothing to lose and much to gain by telling wild tales. Anonymity is often used to hide scoundrels, con men, and hoaxers for the simple reason that a person’s credibility is of course inherently linked to their identity and past: whether an anonymous person who claims to have important intelligence information about North Korea is a 60-year old former government official–or in fact a fourteen year old in Burbank–is very important to know. In the case of Bitcoin founder “Satoshi Nakamoto,” his true identity remains unknown and is not necessary to the validity of the e-currency.

Of course newspaper reporters often quote sources whose names are not publicly revealed, but in those cases senior editors are allowed to know the identities of those quoted, and independent corroborating evidence is sought to verify the accuracy of the information. The Watergate source “Deep Throat” is a good example of a source who had to remain anonymous because to reveal his identity would jeopardize his position. In those cases, however, the anonymous person is providing ostensibly factual information that would be relied upon to be accurate and truthful. Anonymous accusations of cover-ups or crimes, for example, can ruin people’s lives if taken seriously.

But there seems a different matter if the anonymous person is not providing any information which is assumed to be truthful. This would be the case with fiction authors and artists. Perhaps the most famous anonymous artist living today is Banksy, a British street artist active since the 1990s. Though (possibly) appearing for interviews such as in the Academy Award-nominated 2010 film Exit Through the Gift Shop, his identity has never been conclusively established. It is even possible, of course, that Banksy may not exist at all, and is instead the name given to a collective of artists who work together.

The multimedia and music group The Residents, who have been active since 1969, are also largely anonymous. The French electronic music duo Daft Punk are quasi-anonymous, appearing in sleek robotic helmets and costumes; though the members’ names are known, they very rarely grant interviews or appear on television, preferring to stay out of the spotlight in their private lives and let their music speak for itself. Another example is the anonymous man who for many decades left roses and cognac on the grave of Edgar Allan Poe on the anniversary of the poet’s birth. The mystery figure finally stopped, though whether due to ill health, media attention, or another cause is unknown.

Certainly no one doubts that investigators and others have a legal right to look into public information about a person. But assuming that the anonymity of a person isn’t being used to conceal illegal activity, should the public respect an implicit or explicit request to remain anonymous? Is a public good served by someone spending months or years hounding a person who has done nothing wrong but merely wishes to maintain his or her privacy–even if a public figure? Does identifying Banksy, the Poe fan, or Elena Ferrante serve a public good? (One could of course argue that Banksy is a petty criminal graffiti artist and therefore should be identified for the purpose of bringing him to justice, but surely his anonymity was adopted for other reasons than to successfully commit crimes in the way that a bank robber might wear a mask to avoid identification and capture.) What ethical, privacy, and other factors should be weighed between a person’s
right to make their art public–without making themselves so– and the public’s right to know?



There Is No “Right” to Anonymity

David Koepsell

It was only very recently that notions of “privacy” began to enter our language and eventually our laws. The idea that we have some sphere, or as the US Supreme Court has noted “penumbras” of privacy emerging from various rights is quite new. In the realm of medicine, the Hippocratic oath begins to mention a zone of privacy such that physicians must keep secret details discussed between them and their patients, as well as whatever they may come across in their homes (yes, they made house calls then). The idea of anonymity arises from notions of privacy and appears with the first pseudonymous tracts or pamphlets posted to the public in a number of political debates.

The idea of privacy in medicine emerged from the pragmatic need to ensure that patients shared their confidences willingly with those who would help them. Like attorney-client privilege, or that between a priest and confessor, without some guarantee that confidences divulged in the context of a special relationship would be immune to being pierced in other contexts (as in the law, or by governments) the full, beneficial nature of the special relationship would not be realized. Modern notions of privacy, in both ethics and the law, only began to emerge in the 20th century. The idea, for instance, that we have “spheres” or “zones” of privacy that govern what goes on behind closed doors, in our homes, or within our bodies, does not take shape in American law until the mid 20th Century, with seminal Supreme Court cases like Griswold v. Connecticut, which introduced the idea that we have personal zones of privacy that prevent states from interfering with such basic, personal decisions such as contraception use. Even now, however, states can and do regulate interpersonal, sexual conduct to varying degrees, and among the various nations of the world, there are both more and less expansive views of the “right” of privacy. Finally, the protections of the Constitution afford us “privacy” not from each other, but only from the state. Nothing in the Constitution affords us a right of privacy emanating from its “penumbras” as against other citizens.

Physicians have long recognized not only the pragmatic need to assure patients that their disclosures to them in the course of treatment or consultation will remain in confidence, but also a duty owed by physicians to keep those confidences. Arising out of Aristotelian virtue ethics, the professional virtue of a good physician includes fidelity to one’s patients. Among the final promises in the Hippocratic oath is “What I may see or hear in the course of the treatment or even outside of the treatment in regard to the life of men, which on no account one must spread abroad, I will keep to myself, holding such things shameful to be spoken about.” What is striking about this pledge’s notice of a duty to keep confidences is that it actually extends beyond more traditional notions of privacy in both ethics and the law, and has been pushed back in recent years in prominent legal cases. Specifically, a physician must keep secret not just confidences, but accidental displays or admissions about which one would ordinarily consider disclosure “shameful.”

The idea that we have autonomy, and thus some sort of privacy, over our own bodies is an essential element of liberal philosophy. Our minds, our bodies, and some “zones” surrounding our persons are ours, to be free from intrusion, and to do with (with some minor exceptions) as we please. But the rights we exert over our minds, bodies, and personal space, which must be respected by others, do not extend to that which is publicly accessible. Our faces, for instance, reveal ourselves in often very personal ways. Yet we have no right to keep others from looking at our faces, or seeing whether we walk with a limp, or have some sort of publicly-visible disfigurement, despite our urgent wishes that others know only what we wish them to know. In other words, while we have rights to be free from any intrusion into our minds, bodies, and to some degree, our personal space, we have no right to not be seen, heard, or otherwise observed in our public meanderings. Rather, if we wish to keep things private that others can otherwise observe without causing us harm, then we have a duty to keep those things private.

Because what we do in public can reveal who we are, and because there is no way short of wearing costumes, disguising our faces, or other ridiculous means of achieving anonymity, most early attempts to express ideas anonymously were artistic or literary, or in the case of political debates attempted via pseudonymity (using a false name.) in France, the Letters of Junius, and in the US, the Federalist Papers were published to engage in risky political debate under the cover of pseudonyms. Because, prior to the Internet, publishing anything (much less anonymously) was rare and difficult for laypersons, current notions of anonymity had to wait for the World Wide Web to appear and become ubiquitous. Now, the notion of anonymity seems to be inextricably connected with internet publishing. It has even inspired the name of a political movement. But is it a “right”?

I will hazard that it is not a right anymore than privacy is. That is to say, it is not derived from anything but our choices of behavior. If someone attempts to say something anonymously of consequence, it must be said in public. Once an expression is “released to the wild,” “doxing” or revealing the expression’s originator violates nothing from a “moral” point of view. The positive law might attempt to erect protections for anonymity, and better technical means of trying to achieve it are constantly being invented. More power to those that make it easier to protect one’s anonymity, especially if it helps gives voice to those who wish to speak but fear repercussions. There are still legal repercussions for unlawful speech, and breaking through the veil of anonymity may be necessary to punish defamation or unlawful threats. But true anonymity is not only technically very difficult to achieve, even online, it is also not a protectable right in the sense that, say, liberty is. As with privacy, the burden, both moral and legal, or maintaining one’s anonymity should remain with the individual. Once we are “in public” we may be known. Our voices, faces, words, and deeds are visible to others and our identities open to inspection. Online “public” spheres make attempts to conceal our identities somewhat easier, but not foolproof, and we should enjoy no greater rights in these public spheres than any other.

David Koepsell is Director of Education for CFI. He was executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism from 2003-2008 and has been a co-instructor with the CFI Institute since 2012. He holds a law degree (1995) and PhD in Philosophy (1997) from the University at Buffalo, and has authored and edited numerous books, as well as popular and scholarly articles, and has spoken to audiences worldwide on issues relating to civil rights, secularism, science and technology, ethics, humanism, and ontology.


Anonymous: The Great Female Poet

Eve Seibert

Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929), ch. 3

Woolf makes sound points about the difficulties female authors have historically faced and the likelihood that many toiled in anonymity. When Lady Mary Wroth published her pastoral romance, The Countess of Montgomery’s Arcadia in 1621, she caused a scandal. The work was seen as a roman à clef, and some powerful people recognized themselves in it. But part of the outrage had to do with the author’s sex. Female authors were acceptable if they, like Wroth’s aunt Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, confined themselves to religious works, but a secular romance that included a sonnet sequence was considered inappropriate. Sir Edward Denny called Wroth “a hermaphrodite in show, in deed a monster” and poured scorn on the idea of a female writer of fiction. Two centuries later, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë published under the ambiguous names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell to avoid the prejudice often faced by female authors. Much more recently, when Joanne Rowling presented her publishers with her first book about a boy wizard, they suggested that she use her initials because they feared that the presence of a woman’s name on the cover of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone might turn off potential boy readers.

Woolf may well be right that many unattributed works were actually composed by women, but my particular area of literary studies is dominated by anonymous authors, and I suspect that comparatively few them were women. Most Old English poetry is anonymous, as is much Middle English poetry, including two of the most admired works of the period, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl. The vast majority of the vast corpus of Old Norse literature is anonymous. These authors weren’t hiding their identities. Indeed, since Old English and Old Norse poetry were originally composed orally in front of an audience, it would have been impossible for those poets to hide their identities. For the most part, their names have simply been forgotten or they were never recorded. It’s possible–indeed likely–that some anonymous medieval works were composed by women, but the works aren’t necessarily anonymous because the authors were women who needed to hide their sex to avoid prejudice.

We know the names of a very few prominent female medieval European authors, such as Christine de Pizan, Marie de France, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempe. There were even female skalds. While the Poetic Edda and the bulk of the sagas are anonymous, skaldic poems are usually attributed to a specific poet. Almost all named skalds are male, but four women are credited with a handful of surviving stanzas. A half-stanza is attributed to Queen Gunnhild, wife of King Eirik Blood-axe and mother of several kings. A full stanza is attributed to Hild, the mother of Hrolf the Walker, who is traditionally associated with Rollo, the legendary founder of the Norman dynasty. Two other women are known primarily for their contributions to poetry, although only fragments of their work remain. Jorunn the Skald-Maiden wrote about the diplomacy another poet used to defuse a conflict between Norwegian King Harald Fair-Hair and one of his sons. Finally, an Icelandic woman named Steinunn, the mother of poet Ref Gestsson, wrote a poem mocking the shipwreck of a Christian missionary to Iceland. Of these women, only Jorunn could conceivably have been a professional skald (coincidentally, she is also the only one who is not identified by her relationship with men). Skalds served in the retinues of Viking Age leaders, celebrating their masters’ martial glory. Many skalds were also warriors. It was a very masculine milieu.

If a few women could master the ridiculously complicated conventions of skaldic poetry and make accomplished contributions to such a male-dominated genre, there is no reason a woman couldn’t have been scop, an Anglo-Saxon poet. Most Old English poetry is anonymous, and we don’t know of any female poets. There are, however, two poems whose speakers are women: “The Wife’s Lament” and “Wulf and Eadwacer.”* Both poems are difficult to interpret. Well, strictly speaking, “The Wife’s Lament” is difficult to interpret, and “Wulf and Eadwacer” puts it to shame in the difficult-to-interpret department. In the Exeter Book, the only manuscript in which the poems are preserved, “Wulf and Eadwacer” precedes a group of riddles and “The Wife’s Lament” follows it. Consequently, some scholars have interpreted one or the other or both as riddles, but most consider them elegies, like The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and especially “The Husband’s Message,” which some consider a companion piece to “The Wife’s Lament.”

The speakers have been identified as women partly because of context and partly because each speaker uses at least one unambiguously feminine adjective to describe herself. In “The Wife’s Lament,” the speaker says, “Ic þis giedd wrece bi me ful geomorre / minre sylfre sið” (l. 1-2a “I utter this poem about myself, very sorrowful, my own journey”) Geomorre, sorrowful, is grammatically feminine. Similarly, the speaker of “Wulf and Eadwacer” describes herself as reotugu (l. 10). This also means “sorrowful” or “mournful” and is also grammatically feminine.

In the most common interpretation of “The Wife’s Lament,” the speaker is a woman who has been separated from her husband or lover and exiled to a cave in a grove of oaks. In “Wulf and Eadwacer,” the speaker has been separated from her lover, Wulf: he is on one island; she is on another. Her people are hostile to him: “There are bloodthirsty men on that island. They want to kill him, if he comes in a host. It is different for us” (ll 6-7).** Eadwacer appears to be a second man, possibly her husband, by whom she has a “whelp,” which, she says, is being carried off to the forest by Wulf.

Elegies of loss and exile are not uncommon in Old English poetry, but the speaker is usually a male retainer separated from his king or lord, not an individual lamenting the separation from an intimate partner; the apparent reference to adultery in “Wulf and Eadwacer” is particularly unusual. As I said, both these poems are difficult, and there are many interpretations of them. The only unavoidable fact is that the speakers are women.

Of course, some scholars have tried very hard to avoid that fact. Arguing that the speakers are men involves some complicated grammar-wrangling, so the more entertaining arguments rest on the assumption that the speakers are feminine but not actually women. For instance, some scholars have read “The Wife’s Lament” as a Christian allegorical work: the speaker may be the Church yearning for Christ to protect it from its enemies or a soul addressing its body. Cirice and sawol are grammatically feminine, although gast, which was very often used to mean “soul” in Old English, is masculine. I wrote my dissertation on soul and body poems, and I’d be thrilled to find another Old English example. “The Wife’s Lament” isn’t it.

Meanwhile, “Wulf and Eadwacer” has been subject to some even more curious interpretations. In 1931, W. J. Sedgefield figured out the real meaning of the poem: “A female dog of a romantic temperament is dreaming, day-dreaming perhaps, of a wolf with whom she has actually had, or dreams she had, a love-affair in the course of her rambles in the forest. She dreams that her masters are hot on the trail of the wolf, the felon beast, on a neighbouring island in the fen. At this juncture she is awakened from her dream by the terrified yelping of her puppy.” (p. 74)

Oh, those romantic bitches! Now you know what your dog is dreaming about when she whines and twitches in her sleep. In 1985, Peter Orton modified Sedgefield’s theory, suggesting that the narrator is a she-wolf, Wulf her mate, and Eadwacer their whelp.

I don’t know if “The Wife’s Lament” and “Wul
f and Eadwacer” were written by women. I don’t know if any Anglo-Saxon Anons were women, nor do I know how the Anglo-Saxons would have reacted to a female poet. I suspect few women would have had the chance to become professional scops, but Jorunn the Skald-Maiden shows us that such a thing is possible. Regardless, I’m pretty sure that the speakers of “The Wife’s Lament” and “Wulf and Eadwacer” are women. Some scholars have gone through some impressive gyrations to unwoman these speakers and even foist puppies on to one of them. Perhaps a putative female scop would not have had to worry about the prejudices of her contemporaries, but she might want to sic her wolf-pack on some twentieth-century scholars.

*As is generally the case with Old English poetry, these titles have been supplied by editors.

**The verb aþecgan normally means “to serve (someone) with food; to feed (someone).” It is only within the context of Wulf and Eadwacer that it is interpreted to mean “to kill.”


The Wikipedia page for Wulf and Eadwacer includes the Old English text and a fairly literal translation.
The Old English text of The Wife’s Lament can be found here and R. M. Liuzza’s translation here.

Bolton, W. F. “‘The Wife’s Lament’ and ‘The Husband’s Message’: A Reconsideration Revisited.” Archiv 205 (1969): 337-51. Like Swanton (below) Bolton considers these two poems together and interprets the speakers allegorically as representations of the Church and Christ.

Bradley, S. A. J., tr. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Everyman. London: Dent, 1982. In his introduction to The Wife’s Lament, Bradley suggests that the poem could be a riddle with the solution “Zion, the soul” (383).

Orton, Peter. “An Approach to ‘Wulf and Eadwacer.'” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature 85C (1985): 223-58.

Sedgefield, W. J. “Old English Notes.” Modern Language Review 26 (1): 74-75.

Swanton, M. J. “‘The Wife’s Lament’ and ‘The Husband’s Message’: A Reconsideration.” Anglia 82 (1964): 269-90. Considers the speakers allegorical representations of the Church and Christ.

Eve Siebert taught college writing and literature for many years. She has a Ph.D. in English literature from Saint Louis University. Her primary area of study is Old and Middle English literature, with secondary concentrations in Old Norse and Shakespeare. Her dissertation focused on a group of medieval English poems in which a disembodied, damned soul rails at its dead body, complaining about its bad behavior in life and gloating over its impending putrefaction in the grave. She blogs at skeptic.com’s Insight and skepticalhumanities.com, contributes to the Skepticality podcast, and is a panelist on the Virtual Skeptics webcast.


I’d like to thank the writers who offered their insightful thoughts, comments, and reactions on this topic. Obviously we could have additional responses to these responses (and so on), but the format isn’t really conducive such recursion. I hope you found the pieces as interesting as I did, and readers are of course welcome to come back next month for a new topic!