A Lose-Lose: The Outing of Publius
For the most part, I have little to add on the ethics of the Outing of Publius that hasn’t already been said, particularly by James Joyner, though soon to be League podcast participants Dan Riehl and Conor Friedersdorf are at least equally worth reading, though there are plenty of others who have voiced similar opinions.
What I don’t get is what Whelan was trying to accomplish in this particular instance, though. As E.D. said in e-mail this afternoon, “And dammit but if you’re going to be unethical it at least ought to make some sense, right?”
Whelan justifies his actions in part by saying:
When I first ran across publius’s Friday post, I decided just to ignore his latest act in a pattern of irresponsible conduct. But I changed my mind when I discovered that John Blevins is a law professor. I think that law professors especially ought to be held to minimal standards. As regular Bench Memos readers know, I have developed a particular antipathy towards law professors who behave badly—or, rather, who argue poorly: who don’t present opposing arguments fairly, who don’t get the facts right, who don’t reason logically, and who don’t acknowledge and correct their errors.
This makes no sense to me whatsoever. Presumably, the reason Whelan thinks “law professors especially ought to be held to minimal standards,” is that their status as such gives their voice greater authority in the public debate. But Publius had never made his status as a law professor known; while it was always clear that he had some sort of a legal background, there was never any reason to assume he had more authority than a junior associate at a small litigation firm. The reason this was so was, to put it bluntly, because Publius was anonymous (well, to be technical, pseudonymous). Exposing that Publius is a law professor doesn’t result in Publius’ writing being held to a higher standard – it results in that writing now having greater authority than it previously did.
While Whelan obviously thinks Publius’ legal blogging doesn’t “present opposing arguments fairly,” he has no idea to how his alter ego Professor Blevins presents arguments in the classroom or in his scholarship. Blogging, of course, is nothing if not advocacy and even in a 2000-word post (much less a 500-to-1000 word post) it is simply not possible to present all sides “fairly.” The best you can do, in terms of persuasive advocacy, is make coherent arguments for the position that you are advocating. If you do not make coherent arguments, then at best you will become popular with your own “choir,” and you will definitely have a hard time persuading or earning readership from either the independents or the opposite “choir.” Given that ObsidianWings has a pretty sizable readership (so far as I can tell from its highly-trafficked comments section, at least) amongst the indie-sphere, it would seem that Publius, et al do a pretty damn good job doing exactly this. Indeed, I personally disagree with Publius about probably 75 percent of the time (see, e.g., here), but his posts are almost always worth a close reading and respectful counter-argument. Even to the extent that Publius’ writings are truly “unfair,” ObsidianWings has a robust comments section that allows him to get taken to task for doing so.
Obviously, Whelan thinks differently about Publius’ blogging, but the more important point is that blogging – just like all forms of advocacy – is simply not a form where presenting opposing viewpoints “fairly” is desirable, much less possible. That’s not to say that one should deliberately misrepresent opposing arguments, etc. – just that if you spend all your time making the opposing side’s argument, you’re not going to have the time to make your own. The best you can do is to attack what you perceive the opposing arguments to be without making those arguments for the opposing side.
I guess the point is – knowing Publius’ personal identity has no conceivable relevance to whether his blogposts are “fair” or “unfair.” To be sure, maybe Publius would be slightly less likely to quote with approval terms like “legal hitman,” but then again, that’s pretty mild as far as ad hominems in the blogosphere go, and I’m aware of plenty of bloggers (even academic bloggers) who regularly sling far worse ad hominems around, so this doesn’t seem like a particularly worthwhile rationale for outing Publius.
The thing is, I would think Whelan knows all this. He blogs and there can be no doubt that he has a particular position that he advocates. Yet the result of his actions are that everyone loses:
- Whelan loses because one of his most vociferous critics gains more respect by being outed as a law professor rather than just some random anonymous blogger with some unknown legal background.
- Whelan also loses because of the extent to which he has lost respect from what appears to be a good number of his own readers.
- Publius loses because his anonymity is gone at a time when he lacks tenure and has just entered the realm of academia. This loss is not because Publius would be embarrassed by his writing, but because discussing politics publicly is destined for controversy whether you are liberal, conservative, libertarian, etc. When one’s name becomes associated with one’s employer and said employer does not agree with one’s writing, one’s employment can easily be jeopardized because your views can easily be attributed to your employer.
- The blogosphere loses because it creates a marginally increased disincentive for people to blog anonymously. Were Publius to suffer personal consequences as a result, it will also create a marginally increased disincentive to blog under one’s actual name.
Ultimately, I just don’t see what Whelan was hoping to gain by doing this. There’s simply no benefit to anyone.