Updated: Jan 22
Bane vs. Batman in Batman: The Dark Knight Rises
Is a person who hides their true identity a cowardly menace or a noble hero? Why might a typical citizen consider hiding their true identity? History, movies, and literature provide us with endless examples. Those who saw Batman: The Dark Knight Rises were treated to a spectacular variation of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, with French Revolution kangaroo courts, Jacobin “liberators,” and the Reign of Terror captured through Information Age atmospheres. The villain, Bane, and the hero, Batman, both wore masks, but towards different ends. Bane wore a mask to terrorize, instill fear, and evade responsibility for his crimes. Batman wore his mask to protect the people he loved from reprisal, and as an ultimate act of humility – he wanted all of his achievements to be known by a symbol, so that Batman could be anybody, like a flag is to a Nation.
In the real world, spies, activists, authors, public figures, and celebrities must consider using pseudonyms (fake names). Pseudonyms include pen names (noms de plume), stage names, screen names, ring names, nick names, aliases, superhero identities, or regnal names of monarchs or popes. In the digital age, a false screen name can be useful for anyone to protect against identity theft, corporate, foreign, and domestic government surveillance.
The difference between heroic and villainous usage of aliases is not just notable in epic films. In the real world, examples of villainous uses of pseudonyms include:
Illegal alien smuggling,
Black market transacting
Other gang-related activities
Heroic or innocuous uses of pseudonyms include:
Exercising principled privacy
Avoiding business identification collisions
Humbly emphasizing the message while relegating the person behind the message
Protecting friends, family, and career from malicious intimidation and character assassination from political, business, and ideological opponents
Some of the most celebrated or hated people in our history have used pseudonyms: C.S. Lewis, George Orwell, Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky, and Malcolm X. Almost every entertainer chooses a pseudonym.
In American history, there have been those who have tried to crush anonymous speech. The Supreme Court ultimately defended it. In McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (514 U.S. 334), the court held that prohibition of anonymous political or campaign speech is unconstitutional. They affirmed the value of anonymous speech with three main points:
It discourages ad hominem attacks: “Anonymity thereby provides a way for a writer who may be personally unpopular to ensure that readers will not prejudge her message simply because they do not like its proponent.”
It encourages open discussion: “The interest in having anonymous works enter the marketplace of ideas unquestionably outweighs any public interest in requiring disclosure as a condition of entry.”
It offers safety from reprisal: “The decision in favor of anonymity may be motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely by a desire to preserve as much of one’s privacy as possible.”
Considering the arguments of the Supreme Court for anonymous speech, the concept of anonymous speech, superheroes, and pseudonyms is a red-white-and-blue pride. We have long ago determined that the benefits of anonymous speech outweigh the risks. So why is there a trend led by educators and progressive politicians to destroy this spirit of free and anonymous speech? Do they not have access to history books, court records, or the movie theaters? Have they not considered that this topic has been thoroughly adjudicated for centuries?
Animosity towards pseudonyms is thus un-American. The oppressors of free speech cannot tolerate pseudonyms. A person hiding their identity and deemed to be violating the laws and rules, would require authorities to demand the mask come off for justice.
The Wisdom of Pseudonyms
If the Supreme Court arguments were not compelling enough to understand the value of anonymous speech, then attempts to destroy free speech should be. Ultimately a person who is trying to unmask a superhero wishes to destroy him. It is tacit admission by the censor that they are wrong, and the only way they can affect their willpower is to destroy the messenger.
They cannot defeat the superhero in discourse, with facts and reason, so they will use every form of ridicule and social aggression to destroy the people who oppose them. If they have the real identities of the superheroes, then they can even charge them with perception crimes, and blacklist them from jobs. Is it any wonder why the most legendary thinkers and authors in history have used pseudonyms? These situations do not change much through the centuries, even if we tend to forget historical wisdom.
How to Use a Pseudonym
If you are considering the use of a pseudonym, you may find these helpful:
Choose your correct gender and culture. Unless you’re an expert actor and want to invest time into living up to a false gender or culture, you’re going to be uncovered eventually. Your persona won’t “feel right” to observers. You won’t fake it well.
Never share Personally Identifiable Information (PII) such as date and place of birth, biometric records, medical, educational, financial or employment information. New computer algorithms can identify you from clear photos of your face. So use fake photos or cover your face.
Decide the purpose of your alias. What are you trying to achieve? Are you influencing some policy? Are you speaking dissent in a hostile forum? Are you collecting information from opposition? Are you spying on the spies who are spying on you? Pick an agenda for your superhero identity and stick to it. Remember, when you use a pseudonym, you are a symbol, you are not fully yourself.
Seed the persona with false information to throw off spies and antagonists. Use fake locations, PII, and even say things you don’t believe but don’t necessarily violate the agenda of your symbol. Play devil’s advocate. Make it so that even the most determined snoop can’t figure you out because of so much conflicting information. Enact organized chaos. Your snoops mean you harm. They are deceiving you. You must beat them at their own game of deception, or they will surely succeed in harming you.
Keep people who don’t belong away from your alias. You do not want to engage people who do not service the purpose of your alias – whether on your side and spreading the value you contribute, or in opposition to you. Minimize your threat surface.
Seed your speech with unique phrases. When you invent phrases that nobody else has used, you can trace your message all the way up to national exposure. People will steal your message, call it their own, and you will discover that you have succeeded in influencing the entire nation!
If the last suggestion is depressing and you feel like you want credit for your hard work, then pseudo-anonymity might not be for you. You will have to humble yourself, watch others steal your anonymous ideas, and be satisfied that you made a difference. It’s a price you must pay for anonymity.
Pseudonyms are tools. Just as a knife can be used to save a human being in surgery, or kill them in a crime, aliases can be heroic or villainous. Never let opponents intimidate your right to anonymity and free speech. Choose to be Batman, and not Bane. With your noble mask on, you will do a great service for your neighbors, and for the integrity of discourse that maintains a civil and liberated society.