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Editorial - Clue in the name

Ted Nield as MCresized.jpgProfessor Mary Beard’s recent exposure of an online troll - who apologised (by all accounts) because his re-tweeted posts someone were recognised and someone threatened to tell his mum - throws into relief the whole issue of identity and responsibility in the written word.

Learned and professional societies are all about owning up, standing up and being counted. Your Editorial Board (left) is keen to exhibit the fact that it is composed solely of Fellows of the Society, elected by their peers and possessing - as a lawyer might put it – ‘the dignity and responsibility thereto appertaining’. The key word is responsibility, for a postnominal requires a ‘nominal’. Anyone claiming a dignity must make themselves known, so their bona fides may, if necessary, be verified. To claim an affiliation under an alias would be illogical - at worst, mendacious - because those whom you assert elected you (and who therefore act as your moral guarantors) would be unable to identify you.

Internet trolling is fostered by anonymity, and is the direct antithesis of everything that affiliation stands for. Whereas anonymity fosters a freedom that quickly becomes licence, affiliation and identification impose the opposite – discipline in thought and word, circumspection, and (not least) politeness.

We are encouraged to embrace all innovation, for all novelty is bound to become the norm. We are enjoined to accept the Romantic notion that individualism and innovation are everything, and tradition nothing. But not everything lives by innovation. Most creative activities are crafts that need to be learnt, and whose traditions need to be upheld against the forces that inevitably assail them. Nobody should ever write anything to which they would not be content to put their name – or their postnominals.

Anonymity in the written word is a bigger evil, perhaps, than the discounting of expert editing in the belief that democratic ask-the-audience crowdsourcing will somehow do instead. Try googling the sentence ‘I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it’, perhaps French philosopher Voltaire’s best-known quote. The Internet will tell you so. Unfortunately, he never said it (it was put in his mouth by Evelyn Beatrice Hall in 1906). Truth is a privilege known only to a few, and is not determined by show of hands. Nullius in verba and all that.

If you want anyone to defend to the death your right to say something, better say who you are.

Dr Ted Nield FGS