Anonymity and freedom of speech are at odds with each other, argues Menno Blaauw. “Sign the survey or petition and look into the camera when you demonstrate.”
Menno Blaauw: “Unfortunately, some people shake off civilisation as soon as they can remain anonymous.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Anonymity and freedom of speech are at odds with each other, argues Menno Blaauw. “Sign the survey or petition and look into the camera when you demonstrate.”

Liever Nederlands

‘We care about your privacy’ many websites report in all kinds of terms. To put oil on the fire of fear: where there is a fire brigade, there is fire. The General Data Protection Regulation, which was intended to curb Google and Facebook, has made us more fearful of putting our name down somewhere or showing our pictures on the internet.

That fear was justified during WWII when you would get shot for distributing anti-German pamphlets. But the freedom we regained in May 1945, we now neglect. We don't make good use of our freedom of speech.

In a civilised society, ones freedom ends where the others begins. You can say what you think, you can even curse, but, in my opinion, if you unnecessarily hurt someone else, you are going too far. Discrimination and sowing hatred is not even permitted by law. Our freedom of speech is great, but not limitless.

Unfortunately, some people shake off civilisation as soon as they can remain anonymous. Carnival masks have that effect, as do social media and questionnaires that do not require a name and signature. What people dare to say anonymously on Facebook and Twitter is often out of bounds. At TU Delft, education is evaluated by students, who are allowed to do so anonymously. We regularly receive texts that need to be filtered before teachers can read them.

‘Dare be critical’

At the same time, we are increasingly hearing calls for anonymity and protection of privacy, both nationally and within TU Delft. When it comes to a COVID-19 app, this seems even more important than our health. Delta photographers are confronted by people who mistakenly think that they may not be photographed in public spaces. Incoming mail is treated anonymously by the Works Council. Some TU staff do not think it is OK that staff members are mentioned by name in the preview or reviews of the R&D cycle [the performance evaluation interviews, eds.]. Some employees are afraid that the data in the employee monitor and R&O software might not be safe from hackers.

What are we actually saying with these calls for anonimity? That we do not want to be held responsible for our actions and expressions of opinion? That we want to be able to rage anonymously? We behave as if we don't live in a free country, as if we have to do things secretly as they could otherwise have nasty consequences. Or do we need anonymity because it gives us room to violate the freedom of another?

All expressions of opinion can be misunderstood, but if they are anonymous you can't talk to each other respectfully. Hatred is the next step and it makes us unable to come to an understanding, as described beautifully by Monique van der Veen. Anonymity and the freedom of the other are thus at odds with each other. 

So stand up for your actions and your opinions. Dare be critical. Know that you live and work in a free country, and behave accordingly. Give that constructive criticism to make things better. Sign the survey or petition and look into the camera when you demonstrate.  Take your place in the Works Council. Go vote. And protect others who are prevented to express their opinions or are threatened when they do so, even if you disagree with them. Because if we don't use and secure our freedom over and over again, it may just gradually disappear.

Dr Menno Blaauw is IMS manager at the Reactor Institute, after 20 years as a scientist there. He is also a member of the Works Council.