The Poison of Anonymity

Anonymity is the myth that breeds temptation and corruption. It is the darkness within which the possibility of our uglier selves can take hold and poison the world and us with it.

What triggered this post is that recently I noticed someone had removed their Tumblr account and when asked by a friend “Why?” they responded “Too many ugly people…” 

It is a symptom of this growing sense of anonymity that is causing the ugly masses to grow and fester in the digital world of the internet. I know I am going to be unpopular for this but I think perhaps the “privacy at all costs” movement is ultimately self-destructive because one of the potential costs is our own integrity.

We are not fond of the phrase “human nature” because it suggests that there is something about us that might be beyond our own personal control…that there is a nature that can and does take hold given the circumstances.

When we are alone a part of this nature can take hold of us. It is the part that tempts us to think and act in a certain way that we would otherwise not if we were surrounded by others.

Think of the narrative of Eve in the garden. There is a reason that temptation comes upon her when she perceives herself to be alone. Adam too is isolated in the sense that he alone is without knowledge when the opportunity for it is presented.

The antidote to the poison of anonymity is community…read co-unity here. No action by a person co-united with another or others is done in anonymity or darkness. Such light introduces the idea of consequences and accountability to our thinking (neither of which we are fond of frankly). When we act in dark anonymity there is little to fear in terms of consequences (the same is true of those who act out of absolute power/authority…there is a connection between anonymity and power that is worth exploring).

What this one person discovered when they chose to eliminate their Tumblr account is that the perceived anonymity and distance created by the internet perverts people into the monsters we are all capable of becoming. This is why “Troll” is such an appropriate word for them.

In the third and fourth centuries of the Common Era there were a group of Christian monks who came to be known as the desert fathers. One of the things advocated for among them was to go into the desert and isolate in order to encounter and overcome temptation.

At the time the desert was thought to harbour demons (this is why Christ is said to have encountered Satan in the desert). The desert was where one would go to escape community and, in anonymity, confront that part of their nature which would rise up when no one was looking. The desert was where one would go to overcome themselves and in so doing come to the realization of the presence of God in their lives because they understood it was by no strength of their own that such accomplishments are done but by finally realizing that we are in communion with God in all places and so the concept of anonymity was shattered once and for all in their lives.

The internet is the desert of our age where we are confronted by every kind of demon seeking to tempt our darker natures to act as if we can never be discovered, never found out or at least cause us to believe in the mythology of apartness that teaches us we will never be held accountable for our actions. It is the place where the ugly people rise can rise up and attack a person because they lack community and the sense that they are connected to the other. 

John Donne understood this connection that we all need to feel when he wrote in 1624 – 

“No man is an island,  entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” 

The question is not so much – is anonymity and isolation harmful as much as can we handle the burden of anonymity and isolation? Are we aware that we are “involved in mankind” or have we bought into the myth of anonymity? 

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