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Legion. An amalgamated journal.

Principles and phronetics

Recently, over at our new election blog, I accidentally outed the publisher of Gossip Geek by sharing what I understood to be public knowledge. Gossip Geek, for those who have never had the chance to read it1, is an anonymous blog which trafficks in wildly speculative rumor about Harvard students, often grounding observations in some shard of reality but normally operating in a fever-pitched postmodern fantasy world. As such, I have little sympathy for the site. I think it is socially irresponsible, not only in its saccharine fawnings and pointless invectives, but also because I think anonymous publishing of social commentary is extraordinarily cowardly.

Soon after “leaking” Gossip Geek’s authorship, I got an extremely angry email from said author demanding that I take down the post. What’s more, my fellow blog authors suggested that I ought to intervene and protect the author’s identity as well. The argument centered not around the concept that the author had an innate right to continued anonymous publication, but rather that it would cast suspicion on their role in the upcoming election as an election commissioner.

On principle, this was a clear-cut scenario: why shield people from ‘damaging’ information out of the worry that it might cast suspicion on their public role? Has our role as authors come so subject to the kingdom of force that we now treat facts like stray Soviet bombs? Taking the post down, it appeared to me, could make sense only given two assumptions: first, that the information did indeed cast legitimate suspicion on the author’s role as a commissioner; and second, that we should nonetheless offer a shield of protection from this suspicion. I happen to disagree fundamentally with both those assumptions. First, I don’t happen to think that involvement in a gossip website is legitimate grounds to accuse someone of non-objectivity. We are all gossipers, whether we publish blogs or not. More importantly, though, I didn’t think it was our role to arbitrate what facts were admissible as public evidence and serve as delimiters of truth.

But those are principles, and, as anybody who has ever made a decision before, principles only get you so far. After several emails with the author, it became clear that the leak had actually knotted up their life considerably and that they were in a quite a bit of distress over it. One could argue that this doesn’t matter, and that if somebody has gotten hurt by running headlong into the truth, then perhaps they deserve to get hurt. I happen to place a good deal of faith in this premise. But I also happen to place a good deal of faith in the principle of human decency.

This, to me, is the most pernicious of conflicts, and it is something I have always wanted to write about, though I know I do not yet have the wisdom to do it. What happens when our categorical principles come into conflict with the particular categorical principle of everyday decency? Camus famously indicated that, despite his categorically left politics, he could not fully throw his weight in behind the radical anti-colonial movement, since, after all, his dear mother lived in Algeria. He was taunted for this by his more ‘principled’ contemporaries, but I sympathize with his dilemma. On the article of principle, I stubbornly insist that the information about Gossip Geek should stay up. On article of everyday decency, however, I can’t get around the fact that it injured somebody, no matter how many arguments might be made for the specious nature of the injury.

How do we reconcile a canon of principles with a phronetic wisdom of everyday action? I’ve decided finally to hide the posts, though I may bring them back after the election; in this, I realize painfully that I have badly corrupted one principle (the fair production of knowledge) in order to maintain another (interpersonal decency). It is difficult to tread these compromises without falling into moral nihilism, and yet I know it is something we must struggle to do. It is only with a hope that, through practice both individual and collective, we may someday find a way to reconcile ourselves with ourselves, and to find something that supercedes the illusory dichotomy between principles and compromises. For now, I can only muddle through practice.

1 By my own admission, I do not read it either.

Garrett Dash Nelson

November 20th, 2008 at 12:12 pm

One response so far

  • […] been excised after a long struggle. You may, if you are particularly bored, read the justification here (WARNING: OFFSITE LINK. CONTAINS WORDS LIKE “PHRONESIS”. NOT SUITABLE FOR ALL […]