In 1995, while campaigning for a “yes” vote in the independence referendum, I began receiving telephone calls from an anonymous, raspy-voiced man, who was expressing his opposition to my efforts. This continued for about four months. After the referendum was held he called again to insist I leave the issue alone. When I asked him why he seemed fearful of discussing the issue he replied, “All you monkeys should go back to Africa anyway.” Following this racist comment I contacted Chief Inspector Jonathan Smith, who traced the call to a business located on East Broadway. When a raspy-voiced man working there was questioned by the police, this individual denied ever calling me. From that day forward, however, I have not received another phone call from this person.
My caller was a racist and a coward, emboldened by anonymity. The minute he was found out he crawled away as cowards do. His goal was to malign, to stir the pot of negativity and with no effort to contribute toward a rational discussion of a critically important issue. This is one of the problems inherent in much of the anonymity pervasive in what passes for political commentary today.
Our news media sites are replete with the anonymous and cowardly naggers of negativism, the pushers of petty, partisan political rhetoric. In large countries the effect is minimal since there is a multitude of media outlets and a wide and diverse range of views. In little Bermuda, it is easy for a cabal of activists to coordinate a media onslaught, with great effect, when guaranteed anonymity. Comments, seemingly held by a wide range of people, in some instances are part of a clear strategy organized by a few to seek political advantage. One consequence of this is the imagination of a “crisis” far deeper and more severe than it actually is; another is the lack of real discussion as we simply speak across one another.
A less obvious consequence is the weakening of trust. The person who greets you warmly could be the one pillorying you in that anonymous letter. Again, the politics of small places makes this scenario far from abstract. One outcome? A greater level of suspicion of people by public figures than would otherwise be the case.
There are times when anonymity is essential. There is the famous case of American diplomat George Kennan who in 1947 published a transformative article on US-Soviet relations in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym “X”. The magazine editors provided anonymity because of Kennan’s position and the timely importance of his observations during the outset of the Cold War. Here, the Progressive Group, who organized the theatre boycott in 1959, remained anonymous so that the noble cause they fought for remained the sole focus. Employees, public and private, with knowledge of illegal activities or ethics violations have a moral obligation to expose wrongdoing and so they too should be protected. What we witness for the most part today, though, falls far short of selfless engagement.
Free speech is a sacrosanct right in a democracy; it is necessarily accompanied by responsibility. We need to get to a point where we embrace both. We can begin with this newspaper. I have in the past implored the editor to abandon the practice of publishing anonymous letters and do so again today. It would be a small yet symbolic step toward a more mature engagement on the issues that shape our public discourse.