Recently, I received the following question from an anonymous reader over on the Internet equivalent of my scratchpad, my Tumblr blog.

While I believe that transparency is necessary…is it hypocritical to use the mask of a pseudonym and alternate persona to share sexually-explicit thoughts of a challenging nature? Should people who stand by transparency eschew the masks that have protected writers to some extent? Obviously different people will have different opinions on this, but I’m asking for yours, maymay, because both transparency and removing censorship have been part of the convictions within your own writing.

This got me thinking so I drafted a response and, despite mulling it over for a while, I’ve reached the limit of my thoughts on the matter. Therefore, since this blog is rightfully more read than my scratchpad, I’m sharing it here:

I see nothing hypocritical in being pseudonymous while espousing transparency. Moreover, your question seems to come from a profoundly ethical place, for which you should be very proud. Here’s why I say that.

Many people think of transparency as the endpoint on a line. At the other far end of this line is privacy. This defines transparency as privacy’s antonym. That theory is flawed; it incorrectly couples transparency with disclosure and incorrectly couples privacy with anonymity. But none of these things are synonymous.

In reality, transparency and privacy are two different lines. Neither concept violates the principles of the other. Your own question highlights precisely why this is so: speech is never more free than when it is anonymous. That’s why defending freedom of speech is inextricably linked with defending the use of anonymity. Note that many people who defend anonymity do so non-anonymously (like me).

This is important: anonymity has benefits, such as freedom from responsibility, but it also has costs, such as a loss of credibility. Defining transparency as privacy’s opposite is as nonsensical as defining credibility and responsibility as mutually exclusive. Advocating transparency, while part of the same war, is another battlefield entirely.

So rather than treating transparency as a counterweight to privacy, consider treating it as a model to ensure accountability, a conceptual framework for why it’s important to keep records about who did what and when, but not about who can access those records.

Yet another way to think about transparency is in terms of audiences. Good public speakers, writers, and academics know that different people will understand their work differently, and thus they tend to tweak their presentations depending on who they’re presenting their material to. Similarly, representing “the public” as a monolith is dangerously flawed: there are many publics, many audiences. Where background (heritage) factors into determinations for an “audience,” context (related circumstances) factors into determinations for a “public.”

The lynchpin here is a multi-faceted notion of identity. You have a legal identity, a personal identity, a physical identity, a gender identity, a sexual identity, a political identity, an erotic author identity, and so on. Ideally, these identities don’t need to be coupled unless you want one of them to gain the reputation—the credibility—accrued from another. Historically, it’s been difficult to decouple some identities from one another (physical and gendered, for instance), but technology is changing that.

When the various identities you have are all harmoniously working towards the same ends, you as a single consciousness can be said to “have integrity.” When the actions of your identities do not align, you can be correctly said to be behaving “hypocritically.” Such dissonance tends to make ethical people sad. Sadly, it seems to have little emotional effect on evildoers.

Ultimately, transparency, like privacy, is just a tool. Integrity is what really matters.

I hope this helps.

Whoever you are, Anonymous, thanks for asking me your question.