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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Anonymity, Public Expression, and Driving: Two Thoughts

Reading Howard's and Paul's posts below, I had a couple of quick thoughts, mostly brought on by Paul's comment (as I am not familiar with the law in this area).  Probably the thoughts are not new, and scholars of free expression have expressed them in far better ways.

First, on the issue of greater care when one is anonymous, some of this reminds me of the rich tradition of anonymous or pseudonymous pamphleteering and commentary in the early American republic.  Not only Cato, Junius (see Talley v. California), Publius (as Paul mentions in the piece he links to), Brutus, Pacificus, and Helvidius, but also so many others could be freer with their expression by participating in a particular, recognized style of public expression.  And that freedom also stimulated unique types of writing that were thoughtful in different ways than their authors' official writing.  My constitutional law textbook contains, for example, a wonderful pseudonymous letter written in 1790 to the Federal Gazette by "Historicus" (Ben Franklin) satirizing Southern arguments in the slavery debate.  But I wonder whether, per Paul's post, it is the anonymity or pseudonymity itself that provoked the care in expression.  That is, as a matter of writing psychology, I am unsure about causation.  My suspicion is that care in expression, whether one puts one's name to the expression or not, derives from other sources.

I also thought about the behavior of people who drive cars.  It is sometimes said that the fact of being inside one's car provides a sense of insulation from responsibility.  That sense of insulation promotes a sense of freedom to be less careful, more aggressive, and less controlled.  You can truly  be you behind the wheel of a car--or at least you can get closer to the you that sits underneath all of those pesky social constraints, including, of course, the constraint of your own name (naming something immediately limits that something, or constrains it).  The trouble is that nobody much likes the real you, and probably for good reason: the real you is awfully unpleasant and perhaps even dangerous.  Unlike the rose, you just don't smell quite so sweet without your name.  Using one's name may "incur high costs," as Paul puts it in his response to Professor Redish, but it has benefits as well--and ones that don't have to do exclusively with reliability.  I wonder if anonymity in expression today is perhaps closer to the car analogy than to anything as temporally remote as the early republican tradition of anonymous expression.  Maybe both analogies apply at different moments.

ADDENDUM: Matt Bodie helpfully passed along this very interesting paper by current Prawfs guest Lior Strahilevitz, 'How's My Driving?' For Everyone (and Everything?).  Here are some fascinating lines from the piece on the relationship between anonymity and aggressive driving:

The evidence of a link between anonymity and aggressive driving is reflected in numerous studies, all of which reach essentially the same conclusion: People are most likely to drive aggressively when they can avoid sanctions, but drive courteously when they believe they will be held accountable for misconduct.  The cleverest of these studies found that drivers of convertibles behave more aggressively with their tops up than their tops down, even though hotter weather is associated with both one's top being down and aggressive driving.  This observational evidence is consistent with data showing that road rage is relatively rare in those areas where roadway anonymity is diminished, such as small rural communities, and that people drive more aggressively when they are driving alone than when there are passengers in their cars.

Posted by Marc DeGirolami on March 10, 2013 at 10:36 AM | Permalink

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