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If I Don’t Know Who You Are, I Don’t Care What You Say

adrielhampton.com – Why do you care what an anonymous commenter says on the Internet? I don’t, and one of my goals as a Government 2.0 advocate is to end the practice of any serious site condoning a culture of anonymity.

If Web 2.0 is to flourish into a lasting culture, it must lead to true transparency and reject the valueless commentary of people who think they should be listened to just because they know how to shout. It must become about integrity.

I’m not joking here. The Founding Fathers knew when they signed the Declaration of Independence, they were signing their own death warrant. Anonymity is not a protection (just ask the reckless kid who hacked Palin’s e-mail). It is a crutch, and one we must knock away if we are to run.

What do you think?

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Mark Stelzner

Interesting post Adriel. I do get annoyed at times by those who toss hand grenades with no reputational risk. However, I think what would be great is for you to post and/or speak to how people can ease their way into a 2.0 environment. The government is highly risk adverse, and even Pres-elect Obama requested an inventory of all social networking comments and interactions as part of his vetting process. So, how to we drive participation without fear of retribution? I’ll throw that back to you.

Vicki Lusk, SPHR

I agree with Mark, anonymity may be the only way to learn about a serious issue. You’d be suprised but even with all the non-retaliation laws and protections out there, in my HR world, I see it all the time that employees are afraid to speak out for fear of being treated differently.

Adriel Hampton

Actually, I’m not saying you can participate without fear for retribution. Mark, the Obama campaign actually asked for every comment and pseudonym, not just those published in one’s own name. That means that if someone is hiding anonymous Web comments, they would be lying in the vetting process.
For me, this is not an issue of any kind of law or 100 percent solution, it’s about creating an ethos of integrity and transparency. If we’re going to change the game, we’re not going to do it with fake names and snide comments. Using one’s own name requires us to think about what we are saying and to reign in our worse nature.
There are situations where a nom de plume is acceptable, but not as a culture.
Lastly, anyone who thinks anonymity on the Internet protects them from retaliation or other repercussions from their speech is operating under a false premise. For example, if an employee is under investigation at their workplace, all behavior on their computer may be scrutinized and linked to them.
And being a private citizen also does not protect you. Check out this article, which cites the anonymous comment history of the apparent father of the transit cop who shot a young Black man a couple weeks ago, leading to riots: Todd Mehserle’s Angry Internet History.
The culture must change.

Dave Uejio

Hi Adriel,
While I agree with the sentiment underpinning your post (which I read to be “don’t allow anonymous internet trolls from stifling your voice”), I think it’s important that sentiment be balanced with a willingness to consider comments on their own merits: let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater merely because a source declines to identify themselves. I think good input should be weighed irrespective of its source on its own merits. As I’m sure you’ve surmised, I’m a pragmatist -good feedback, even from those who intend to score cheap points with it can be of use; being a leader means having the self confidence to state your beliefs AND the wherewithal to calibrate them in the face of meritorious argument.

Sandy Ressler

I TOTALLY AGREE with this. Anonymous posting and comments used to be reasonable in the day when the net was simply a home for geeks. That’s not true anymore and often I see useful articles on many blogs trashed up by anonymous, hateful speech. Anonymity which is a great concept, seems to encourage a devolution to the lowest common denominator of human behavior. In the context of blog comments it doesn’t work anymore so lets get rid of it on sites seeking to have any serious discourse.

Sarah Bourne

Besides the troll scenario, there are reasons why people may not be comfortable with having to identify themselves before posting. Here are two from my personal perspective; I suspect there are similar issues for people in other circumstances:
– There have been times I just haven’t posted because the vehemence of people with opposing views is scary: might they show up on my doorstep threatening harm?
– As a civil servant, what if I post a comment that is not in alignment with a *future* policy position? Might it be used against me?

And then there’s the identity problem. You may require people to register as themselves, but how do you prevent people from registering with a false identity? There’s really no practical way to ensure that a commenter is who they say they are. The honest folk will probably register as themselves, the trolls and haters will find a way to get around it, and folks that are distrustful of government will just not participate.

I think people should be encouraged to self-identify, and any govt. employee that answers posts should set the example by using full names. We also need to be sure to have a clearly stated and routinely enforced comment policies – and not be afraid to modify them if needed to maintain a civil environment.

Jessica Palmer

I have to agree with Vicki. There are a lot of pseudonymous *bloggers,* not just commenters, out there. I know some of them. The reasons they cite include concerns about repercussions from employers and peers – concerns which I think are justified, especially since they are often criticizing flaws in the system. If these professionals did not have the opportunity to blog anonymously, they would not blog at all – and we would not have access to their unique perspectives from within their professional worlds. How do we know they’re reliable? Because they build up respect over time through their writings, arguments, and interactions with others, just as other bloggers do. Surely having their perspectives is worth the ambiguity that accompanies pseudonymous authorship.

I have lots of pseudonymous commenters on my personal blog. I give very short shrift to one-off “anonymous” comments, but a repeat commenter with a recognizable handle is treated like any other individual and judged on their body of work.

I think it’s worth remembering that even Ben Franklin thought pseudonymity was appropriate under certain circumstances!

Daniel Bevarly

Adriel, an issue I have a deep interest in and have given much consideration over the years. I support the policy of attribution and accountability when providing public comment on a public issue, event, project, legislation or policy, whether in person or electronically. It’s what government and citizens have been doing for 225+ years in this nation. Why should the Internet change this indispensable procedure of our democratic foundation?

However, I am not in favor of wearing a name tag with my home address when I participate in a public demonstration or sit in a public meeting where I am there to listen, but have no plans to comment.

Citizens and government can engage in a variety of ways that are formal and informal. Historically, government convenes a dialog with citizens that is vertical in nature (G-C, C-G), but today, through social networks, government can facilitate more of a flat, or horizontal structure (C-C, C-G-C) but really isn’t and that’s a topic for another discussion.

When I hear people speak about how the Internet will reinvent government, I fall back on a familiar response that it is not about reinventing, but replicating the structure and standards set forth from our nation’s beginning defined by laws and policies.

As a public official, would you sit at a town hall meeting and let citizen upon citizen come to the microphone and address you without identifying themselves? Are they even a constituent?

Will you schedule a meeting with citizen who does not want to provide their name or address but wants to talk to you about a policy or bill in which you have influence? If your response is “no,” then why would you open anonymous email after anonymous email and entertain it as public comment?

So, a clear description of what type of engagement is occurring is critical in how the comment or content (right?) is received and how it is used. It is more about defining clear expectations from both (all) sides. Is the dialog a formal public comment request that will become part of the public record just like comments attributed in person at a public forum? If so, then require attribution.

Is the engagement more of a venting process to let citizens speak their mind where you are taking more of a pulse of their sentiment, then looking for thoughtful responses (although there may very well be thoughtful comments among them)? Then perhaps attribution should not be a requirement to get more people participating.

Consider the impact a conventional petition would have with just a bunch of user names. Would this influence your decision making?

There are times when attribution should be a requirement, e.g., when public officials are deciding policy or legislation, and other times where anonymity encourages participation. As Adriel stated, you have the option to read, or not and agree with or not those who either identify themselves or wish to remain anonymous. I’ve found that while both type of contributor may have thoughtful informative things to say, the criticism, name calling, un- and counter-productive, not-on-point comments are heavily weighted among the anonymous posts.

I’ll end this long procession with a very basic question: As citizens seek more transparency from their government, is it fair for government to expect more of the same from them? Aren’t we a representation of the other? (Oops, two questions).


Excellent comments by all. And I agree. I think the point Adriel is making, if I may, is intent. What is the intent of anonymity? Is it to have a fun handle, to provide protection from retaliation at work/to protect one’s free speech, or is it to be a jerk?

The internet is a marvelous place, but sadly, so many people have taken advantage of its anonymity to be jerks, predators, and the like. If we don’t give them any creedence, if we basically ignore their comments, hopefully they will go away. There will always be those who are satisfied w/ just posting their idiocy, but hopefully those who are just looking to rile others up will stop when they see we aren’t interested in their bile.

Andrea Davis

I’m pretty unhappy when I read comments in newspapers and choose not to contribute to them based on the fact that people hide behind their anonymity. I did ask on my own Ning Community for people to use their own names where possible, but I know that because we are a local site, some people have legitimate safety reasons for keeping their real name out of it.

Lincoln Green Scene – Our suggested best practices.

Bryan Klein

In my case, there are members of the community that I manage that do not feel free to be open about their identity. Where a statement that can be perceived as a lack of knowledge at the time, can be later used against them by the opposing side of a litigation case. This is a very real risk to their professional life and I advise people that if these risks are relevant to their work, to contribute but through an anonymous free email account without any personally identifiable information. In my community the highest value is the information sharing and dialog, anything that can get in the way of that has a lower priority. I say that in general it does not matter who you are as long as you participate and contribute constructively to the community, through open and honest discourse.

Kim Patrick Kobza

Adriel, This is probably one of the most important themes of gov 2.0. Please keep promoting it. Dan Bevarly’s comments above are very well said. Let me expand on Dan’s perspective.

Public comment

Public comment is the bridge between “old world” engagement and “new world” engagement.

The historical purpose of public input and citizen involvement is to aid legislators in making better decisions through discovery of new ideas. Cass Sustein describes this thematic in Infotopia. Said another way, public comment processes are designed not to measure public sentiment and to replicate voting processes such as online “smart mobs”. They are designed to find cognitive outliers and fresh thinking.

The public comment process has been the accepted and standard method of supporting public engagement. Public comment is a legal standard at all levels of government. It requires attribution, disclosure of identity and contemplates informed opinion through at least the opportunity to review referential information relevant to the policy issue at hand. It has survived and thrived for over 200 years.

Public comment is used by all levels of government – local, state and federal – for 5 classes of involvement, projects, issues, events, rules, and legislation.

In a public hearing process citizens are required to step to the podium, state their name and address, and speak on point to the issue at hand. They are not allowed to use profanity and must be “in order”. Public comment may also be submitted by fax, letter, and sometimes – email. Often citizens will state their experience or qualifications. Public comment is never simply about stating naked opinion nor is it ever anonymous.

Consideration of Public Comment

Those who receive and consider the comment, decision makers, have an absolute discretion to determine how they weigh each public comment – including specifically its source. One reason that public comment is never anonymous is that the source is important to the ability to determine its relevance. So to your point, sources cannot be anonymous.

Should social technology change the public comment standard?

Online technology changes the historical public comment paradigm in many helpful ways.

First, it reduces the cost of participation in a way that enables inclusion. People who do not have time to attend public meetings (to sit for 8 hours to speak for 5 minutes) can have the time to participate – online. This means that more citizens having diverse points of view, can participate. Greater inclusion increases the possibility of finding new and iterative ideas.

Second, online participation enables participants to avoid social fear – citizens’ reluctance to publicly state a contrary opinion in a group environment. This fact alone reduces the bias often created by “group think”.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it enables peer to peer, social collaboration characteristic of online engagement. Peer to peer communication is not generally considered part of formal public comment.

This is the point – there are new possibilities in government that flow from social communication – interaction between and amongst citizens. Said another way, governments have the opportunity to put new networks to work – another resource to constructively solve our most vexing common problems.

But it only works if we disclose our identities because unlike pure social networks and the anonymity that often defines them, government networks are built for a purpose. To your point Adriel, they only work if we establish the trust that comes with standing behind our comments through disclosure of our identity.

Mark D. Drapeau

I had written an article for Mashable.com about “no brands on Twitter” with the idea being that people like to talk to people, and every account had a person behind it, so that name should be overt. I’m with this.

Meghan Harvey

Intent is the key word here. Other than the obvious reasons for anonymity as listed in other comments here, it’s just doesn’t make sense. Anonymity removes any real validity in the comments.

Bryan Klein

I will state upfront that as a personal choice, I almost always use my full name and my email address also contains my name. I follow the advice found in ‘Producing Open Source Software‘ by Karl Fogel, in chapter 6 ‘Communications‘. on the topic of ‘Face‘. I have found this document to be very helpful in many areas of social media technology implementation and community building.
I am not sure if I agree that anonymity removes validity of the comment content, but it certainly make attribution difficult. Which may or may not matter, and I claim the latter in most cases.

I also wanted to point out another area of difficulty I have encountered in this topic of discussion. I have found that instead of people with long titles and many designations before and after their names jumping in and participating in the discussions online. They resent in some way that they are not ‘special’ by name and title alone, like in many other areas they work in… that they are usually only recognized by their contribution to the issues of the community. As an example, some have even requested special sub-communities within our community for just the PhD’s, to have private discussions. These online environments are usually more of a meritocracy than any other form of perceived authority, and this kind of respect is much more difficult to earn. Some who have spent years attaining status in one area of life, find this difficult to adjust to. The playing field is level and all who join are free to participate on equal footing regardless of who they are. If this is true, then name and title become less important, and the only reason to provide them is to clearly identify who it is that is offering value to the community. In my opinion as long as value is added (which is the most difficult part), then the rest is less important.

Chris L. Latendresse

Interesting thread. Anonymity is a cloak for both those that wish to inject a different perspective, often discussion-changing perspective into the discourse from an ‘in-the-know’ position, but cannot go full-monty exactly because of their positions. I believe we have anonymity for exactly that reason. For those that abuse the anonymity privilege, I believe in the wisdom of the crowd. As one poster above noted, a person will be based on the merit of their writing, arguments, positions, etc. When an anonymous moron rears their ugly head, the wisdom of the crowd will prevail, hitting back with fact and good argument. Beaten back enough times, they usually go away, or the crowd learns to ignore them.

Bryan Klein

I agree, and even better, let the crowd moderate to some extent. while not deleting the bad information, force it down below a threshold of what normally shows up on the page. Similar to Slashdot, Reddit or Digg.

Adriel Hampton

@ariherzog I don’t think you have to force full attribution, I’m talking about a culture. Even the default comment format for most blogs is trending towards disclosure. I’m right on this one.
@sarah It is scary to use your real name all the time. But it’s like ignoring someone smoking pot or drinking in your neighborhood park. The next day, there are two people doing it. Change doesn’t come without some cost. I do understand your concerns, and I have no problem with nom de plumes in some contexts.
@vicki @jessica I strongly believe we have to have the courage to stand up for our ideas. There is even a matter of fairness, because anonymity brings out the worst and can hurt good people. It’s also not what leaders do. Whistleblowing is another issue.
@daniel @kim thank you for your comments, much wiser and more thought out than mine.
@bryan I guess your PhD story brings up the opposite – people who want to be judged by name and not content!
@mark @geekchick You two are good examples of the culture we need. You can have a lot of fun and still be responsible for what you say and who you are.
@chris A thumbs/up thumbs down approach is a possible solution, but only if you radically change the culture. Do you actually read the comments that float to the top on news stories that have all anonymous comments? Often the crowd is a beast.

Ben Franklin is nothing like the culture of anonymity we have allowed to flourish on the Internet. It’s worth taking a stand to move things forward.

Joe Lynn

Why should you care about anonymously posted thoughts? Because they have merit. I read milkcluber’s posts and learn a lot. I’m not sure why he/she doesn’t post with a real name, but given the quality of the posts I trust that there are good reasons.

Adriel Hampton

I guess knowing who MilkCluber is makes a diff for me. But it’s also about a culture. He/she is a known quantity. But I’ve also seen MilkCluber involved in many, many fruitless and unhealthy online conversations that I think prove my point.

Jeffrey Levy

First, a humorous cartoon that’s related in a sideways-thinking kind of way: http://xkcd.com/386/

I think anonymity is fine. What’s the problem with it? That more jerks use anonymity than solid contributors? Well, that’s why we have a comment policy for EPA’s blog.

Responding to Daniel’s questions: “… would you sit at a town hall meeting and let citizen upon citizen come to the microphone and address you without identifying themselves? Will you schedule a meeting with citizen who does not want to provide their name or address but wants to talk to you about a policy or bill in which you have influence?”

Sure, why not, at least when you’re trying to learn about varying points of view. Yes, identity can add context, but the comments themselves have value even without it.

Now, I make one large exception to my general tolerance: if you’re out there writing or speaking on gov’t time, you should be identifying yourself as a gov’t employee. And EPA’s internal guidance will say so. No anonymous editing of Wikipedia articles about EPA’s stuff, no commenting on blog posts if you don’t acknowledge who you work for.

Jeffrey Levy

BTW, you can comment on federal regulations anonymously. I think that’s fine, because the purpose of comments in that context is to discover new information or regulatory approaches.

Chris L. Latendresse

Jeffrey raises an important consideration, the issue of context. Should every SN be open to anonymous contributions? Is anonymity on an SN in an Enterprise 2.0 environment hosting employees, customers, suppliers, regulatory authorities and other connected stakeholders appropriate? What contexts are appropriate for anonymity, which are not?

@Adriel – “I guess knowing who MilkCluber is makes a diff for me.” I’m curious to know why it makes a difference? I got to thinking about this point more, and concluded that identity makes no difference in how I value contributions of a user. If their contributions are good and have value to me, I won’t care what identity they are using, as long as it is consistent so i can continue to follow them. If a user is using abusive language, spreading mis-information, or affecting good dialogue (such as hijacking) negatively, the moderator or facilitator should jump in and manage the problem and hold them accountable through access to the system. Typically the crowd will self-regulate as the first step, and then the moderator will step-in if the problem persists. Knowing the real identity of someone that behaves poorly online is not important for me, because I’m here for the dialogue. In my opinion, the benefits of having anonymity far outweigh the need to know true identities. Some of the best contributors are anonymous, and it would be a shame to lose their insight for the sake of making them visible.

Adriel Hampton

@Jeffrey – You learn something (or a lot!) every day. I did not realize that federal reg processes accepted anonymous comments. If I’d seen it before, I did not internalize it.
@Jeffrey, @Chris – I am definitely not pushing a 100 percent rule here, but I think I am convinced that the culture of anonymity is critically dangerous to the widescale adoption of Web 2.0 or it’s acceptance by government and citizens as something meaningful. Sure, the stuff is fun, but I believe if we are to really make changes through it, we have to embrace transparency along with collaboration. Isn’t that one of the core concepts of the 2.0 movement? You can even see it in how blog commenting systems have evolved towards use of real names and links to personal Web sites. I see that their is a slippery slope back to AOL with these technologies, and what did AOL change?
@Chris – I’m back in school, and I do appreciate why people with degrees and fancy titles often think they deserve respect that might not come from their immediate contributions. People who’ve gone through the trenches usually know more than the upstarts, even if they might not have the same spark or casual grasp of emerging technology. If I know that an anonymous commenter is someone I know to be respectable in real life, I will value their contributions a bit more than a random stranger. I’m curious really that you guys are so appreciative of anonymous contributions and thinking that we must be dealing with entirely different contextual backgrounds. Perhaps you have seem anonymous contributions work in a professional setting, while I have seen them be tremendously destructive in public settings.

Bryan Klein

@Adriel, to quote a little Shakespeare…
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)
I understand that names are given and are then used as convenient labels for identifying an individual, but they are not unique nor are they always (in fact they are rarely) the most important part of a discussion with a person, it is the content from that unique individual that is most important. Information is power, and to restrict the flow or access to that information by enforcement of proper identification is a loss to the true value of the internet. It is all about information flow, easy and free. I think it would help things out significantly to reduce our focus and dependence on containers and formats, names and titles and instead work hard to make sure that creation and access to raw content is unhindered. We are intelligent creatures with sophisticated tools that can track down sources and filter content after it is created if necessary.

Also, I would disagree that the people who have gone through the ‘trenches’ and ‘know more’ are those with degrees and titles. I would say to that… Know more about what exactly? In many cases I have seen that they are the upstarts, who have spent years in academia, and arrive on the scene with little real life experience to validate the knowledge that they possess. That there are those who have been immersed in the systems, gathering tested knowledge by learning what really works and what doesn’t through the execution of ideas, and have gained wisdom and respect through the successes and failures that come along with it. These people may not have titles or names of import, but they have valuable information… information that needs to be added to the collection. This in my opinion is what is new and revolutionary about social media technologies. That you don’t have to have a name or a title, you don’t have to publish books or become famous before you are heard. That you can easily enter into the connected realm of information and become an active participant… you can contribute.
Are there going to be worthless trolls who make a mess and try to start flamewars? I can almost guarantee it. But, that is what more modern information management systems help us deal with, and what community moderated information stores can help to filter out. Which in many cases makes this concern a non-issue and can reduce and eliminate their ‘tremendously destructive’ potential.
In the end, use your name if you want to, or don’t… but in any case… freedom to contribute should be the highest priority, and not restricted through requirements for use of your personal identification text string. That true transparency is the ability to evaluate a person based on what they do, which defines who they are. Where people can no longer hide behind names, titles and positions of assumed power and prestige.

Adriel Hampton

@Bryan “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” – Gertrude Stein
Would love to debate this issue with you further. I suspect we have less disagreement than it looks from our long responses, but are just looking at identity management from different directions. Perhaps we can get a Twitter thread going one night, which I would then publish as a follow up to my original blog entry. It’s a hot topic.

Chris L. Latendresse

@Adriel – .There is a reason I’m overly interested in this post and thread in particular. You posed a great question, one that appears not to have been explored in any depth in an SN context, and so I might take up the challenge. I honestly have no personal preference on anonymity, but I am interested in the contributions of those in government.

A side note, just wanted to let you know I value your contributions and efforts on this site and always look forward to reading your posts, you write well, and with clarity. Cheers Chris

Adriel Hampton

Thanks, Chris. It would be really valuable to have more research and analysis on this issue beyond opinions of a few people. How does the non-networked public feel about this issue? Is it a barrier to engagement?
If you do work on the issue, I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

Chris L. Latendresse

@Bryan – “I would disagree that the people who have gone through the ‘trenches’ and ‘know more’ are those with degrees and titles” I completely agree with this point. I have met people that can run technology circles around me that are degree-less. I believe higher education can teach you ‘the how’ , how to properly investigate, argue, support and articulate (and even this can be learne without getting into academia) but it comes down to how much a person dedicates themselves to a particular subject matter (in terms of knowledge and experiences). Anything can be learned well, with or without degrees…its a matter of dedication. As Malcom Gladwell proposed, expert-ness is a matter of spending 10,000 hours on something, not specifically brain power or degrees.

I am humbled all the time on this site by the expertise, insight, and depth of knowledge by those with, and without higher education.

Bryan Klein

I guess that fundamentally I recoil at the concept that anonymity == invalid content.
From a government employees perspective (personal opinion) I think that it is paramount that I and we use our full names in public discourse when communicating during duty hours and in connection with our assigned role. The public should know who we are, what we are doing and saying. This same rule does not need to apply to the public, they should be free to expose themselves as much as they feel comfortable with. Remember that historically and around the world today, the government is not always wear the white hat. I think that this issue places a bit of hesitancy in the minds of the public, who may feel the need to make critical comments about the topics of the day.

Adriel Hampton

And I did not say your first sentence, despite my provocative title. Anyone who thinks anonymity protects speech on the Web is 100 percent fooling themselves, and we should not be perpetuating that notion.

Bryan Klein

‘valueless commentary’ -> invalid content.. maybe I missed the distinction.

I agree that most people can usually be tracked down regardless of the name they use to communicate with. Although this level of tracking is outside of the skill set for most people. On the flip side, there are tools that can be used to mask or remove traceability, and they are much easier to use than the tracking tools.

Like you said, I do think that we agree on the majority of issues in this topic.

Lucas Cioffi

Pixel-for-pixel, anonymous comments may or may not be of higher quality; it would be wonderful to see some data on that.

Quality of comments, however, cannot be the only consideration for government agencies; there are free speech issues at play. We found in a preliminary study in front of the US Capitol here in DC that requiring real names would leave far too many voices out of a national conversation.

Big Picture Inc

It’s interesting that you are not able to anonymously comment on this post…

Anyway, I would argue that anonymity is important. Consider pen names and voting…

Per Wikipedia (a source that relies on many “anonymous” users): “…anonymity may allow people to reveal personal history and feelings without fear of later embarrassment. Electronic conversational media can provide physical isolation, in addition to anonymity. This prevents physical retaliation for remarks, and prevents negative or taboo behavior or discussion from tarnishing the reputation of the speaker. This can be beneficial when discussing very private matters, or taboo subjects or expressing views or revealing facts which may put someone in physical, financial, or legal danger (such as illegal activity, or unpopular or outlawed political views).”

I would argue that anonymity allows everyday (and sometimes not-so-everyday) people to talk freely without fear of retribution. In addition, anonymity allows individuals outside of a given community to share their thoughts. After all, shouldn’t diversity of ideas be valued?