This is our truth, tell us yours
Incidentally dear reader, this re-tread of an old blog is an attempt on my part to cover up the fact that I can’t finish my response to Ed Miliband’s consultation on where now for Labour’s New Politics. So bear with us as we tackle an issue that is not easy, not least because we don’t want to repeat the mistakes of an individual we wish to criticize. Simply put, it’s an attempt to explain why this blog doesn’t side with those who think that either outing, or strident accusations of ‘you’re not a genuine X (where X is a marginalized group to whom a do gooder wishes to deny agency in order that they may rescue them) is an acceptable tactic. And yes, this is similar ground to the post on believing the victims – consistency is a good thing so long as it doesn’t amount to repetition.
Anyone who, like me, regards Robert Tressell and George Orwell as literary heroes cannot hesitate to approve of the notion of the nom de plume being no obstacle to literary achievement or political engagement.
Nor do we subscribe to the fey notion that our political bedfellows have to be perfect in every facet. It didn’t stop me admiring Rita Mae Brown when I discovered that she’s an avid foxhunter and horsewoman; her books, or at least the early ones, were still very good, and, let’s face it, not even in my wildest dreams have I ever mistaken Martina Navratilova for a socialist or even a progressive just because she’s a lesbian. Being somewhere to the right does not make gay people less gay, or lesbians less lesbian.
Twitter is designed around the idea that we can present a username to the world that is not our real name. It’s one of its attractions. Like a publisher allowing an author to use a pen name, Twitter has endorsed the idea that we may wish to show the world an artificial construct rather than the whole of the reality. If you’re J K Rowling you may want to avoid being seen only as the author of the Harry Potter books – and let’s face it, that’s easy to understand.
There are good practical reasons why some people don’t want to show the world the reality. Eric Arthur Blair wanted to distance George Orwell from his Establishment past, and to keep alive the option of Blair having a future. Robert Tressell wanted to distinguish the willing and talented socialist painter and decorator from his privileged past.
It’s not just about literary figures who want to create a separate life, free from their personal baggage. I have lost count of the number of men who made passes at me, trying to remember their assumed name while rubbing at the pale ring of flesh on their third finger. Cruelly, some of the younger men I used to hang out with used to tease those men by using different names for them – so you’d call ‘Bruce’ Greg for twenty minutes to see if he cracked ad admitted he’s not Bruce the sales rep but Lee the carpet fitter. I have also lost count of the number of times I walked into a gym or the clubhouse the morning after and lied about where I’d been the night before, because the two lives were not, to me, congruent.
Did I deserve to be outed? I don’t think so. Some people may disagree, but the face I present tot he world should be my choice, not yours.
It’s interesting to note that the same phenomenon is not unknown in lesbian clubs, where the married woman with money to burn has also been known to take other women back to a Travellodge where the lucky woman has to wait while her hostess phones her kids from the bathroom and tells her partner at home that she’s had great fun shopping and a good time with the girls despite Katie getting pissed and needing to be brought back early to the hotel.
I try not to judge – people are, quite simply, complicated.
Was Eric Blair troubled by the gap between Blair and Orwell, between the authentic man and his literary persona? I think so, and I think it’s at the heart of Orwell’s ambivalence about Winston Smith, just as I think Orwell was troubled by Blair’s reports, as a BBC producer, to MI5 about the Communist fellow travellers he thought posed a risk to British society.
Was Noonan troubled by Noonan’s privilege as compared to the realities he described Tressell experiencing? I think so, and I think it’s part of the pathos of the book, that Tressell knew that if his work mates knew he could have chosen to be Noonan, they would have thought his choices incomprehensible.
Both Orwell and Tresell understood that there was a message they wished to convey that needed to be separated from the history of their lives.
Well, especially for this who take dissenting positions, the first and most disabling attack that their opponents will take is the the ‘you’re not authentic’ approach. Outing is a variant on the same approach. It’s a powerful attack on dissenting women, that they are not really sex workers, or not really rape victims, used to enforce conformity on those who report a different experience to the one that fits the models espoused by sex work abolitionists or elite feminists who wish to save women by imposing their values upon them.
Imagine you’re a bishop of the Church of England. You’re trying to hold together a church that is riven with dissent about homosexuality. Once, a long time ago, you were entrapped in a police operation against cottaging. Does the world need to know that thirty years later? Some people think so, but I think it’s a distraction from the clarity of your thinking.
Similarly, on Twitter, we don’t need to know who people really are. We need to know if what they’re saying is evidence based, or capable of being verified.
Outing is a variant of the ad hominem attack – it’s a way of playing the man, not the ball, and should be the exception, not the rule. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wonder if X is a shill for the far right, or a paid promoter for ideas you disagree with, but if you wish to win the argument, even the most strident of ad hominem attacks will not make a good argument bad.
If you don’t know why someone is not revealing their true face on line, you do not know the harm you might cause by publishing their true identity. If, in those circumstances, you go ahead and out them, you cannot claim to one of the guys in the white hats. It really is that simple. Recklessly causing harm is never a substitute for reasoned debate.