The Anonymous Threat Hoax

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 24, 2011 in Ethics,Guest Post

Today’s post on ethics is written by Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

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You know the Westboro Baptist Church as the people who celebrate the deaths of American soldiers and celebrities as God’s punishment for the tolerance of homosexuals.

You may know of the group Anonymous, a collection of hackers who have been known to cause serious problems for groups and individuals they disapprove of. On the bad side, they commit acts of electronic violence against private businesses that do not cater to their political views. On the good side, they frustrate policial dictatorships that like to control the flow of information.

On February 16th, a letter was posted that concluded:

ANONYMOUS cannot abide this behavior any longer. The time for us to be idle spectators in your inhumane treatment of fellow Man has reached its apex, and we shall now be moved to action. Thus, we give you a warning: Cease & desist your protest campaign in the year 2011, return to your homes in Kansas, & close your public Web sites.

Should you ignore this warning, you will meet with the vicious retaliatory arm of ANONYMOUS: We will target your public Websites, and the propaganda & detestable doctrine that you promote will be eradicated; the damage incurred will be irreversible, and neither your institution nor your congregation will ever be able to fully recover. It is in your best interest to comply now, while the option to do so is still being offered, because we will not relent until you cease the conduction & promotion of all your bigoted operations & doctrines.

It turns out that this letter was a hoax.

The press release disowning the threat letter suggests that the threat letter is a trap. It accuses the Westboro Church itself of publishing the threat in order to lure Anonymous hackers into performing actions that would then allow the church to file lawsuits against the internet providers that were used in these attacks.

The Westboro Baptist Church has made a great deal of money in lawsuits against those who attack it for its radical views. Some argue that this is their business. The church looks for ways to express the most hateful opinions precisely because those opinions will draw others into attacking it. It then uses the courts to extract money from those who violate its rights to freedom of expression.

Whether the threat letter is a hoax or is real, one fact is that, in the comments, a great many people expressed support for the tactics described in the threat letter. Browse through the comments and you will see what I mean.

The people who embraced those tactics are not friends of the right to freedom of speech. In fact, there is reason to fear for the freedom of speech, seeing how many people were willing to abandon it and embrace the threat letter.

The threat letter represents the very essence of abandoning freedom of speech. It expresses an attitude of a group of people who think that they have the right to play the dictator of what may and may not be said.

Many of those who defended this use of violence against mere words used the standard defense that censors have often used – that some words risk corrupting the weak minded and, as such, people must not be permitted to express them. “We must control what people read and hear because we must control what people think. They cannot be trusted to think for themselves, so we take it upon ourselves to do the thinking for them.

The initial threat letter also offered this defense:

Your demonstrations [have] frequently crossed the line which separates Freedom of Speech from deliberately utilizing the same tactics and methods of intimidation and mental & emotional abuse that have been previously exploited and employed by tyrants and dictators, fascists and terrorist organizations throughout history.

However, it gave no examples of this. Even if it did, this would only serve to set those who used this excuse up as vigilantes, who hold for themselves the right to serve as judge, jury, and executioner of their own law.

Whenever a person or group decides to make themselves the final judge of their own actions, they tend never to judge themselves to be guilty of any wrongdoing. They tend to judge those who challenge them always to be guilty.

This is precisely why wise people set up barriers both to vigilantism and censorship. They find that a general public aversion to these practices is the best defense against these self-serving abuses. The censor and the vigilante simply do not remain long the servant of any good but their own.

As I have repeatedly argued, the right to freedom of speech is a right to immunity from a violent response for what one says. It is a doctrine that puts a moral limit on the legitimate response to words alone. The response to words is limited to words alone, or to private action.

Private actions, in turn, are actions that one does not have to justify to others. They include such things as deciding where to live, where to shop, what to buy, what to watch, where to donate money and time, and what web sites to visit. These may be used to express one’s approval or disapproval of what others say.

If you want to find an enemy to the freedom of speech, look for somebody who claims the right to respond to words, not with words and private actions, but with acts of violence.

Look to the comments to the Anonymous threat letter, and you will find a great many posters embrace the practice of violence against those who express opinions they do not like.

The response to the comments should have been a combination of (1) disbelief that Anonymous would threaten the very values it claims to uphold and defend, or (2) anger that Anonymous apparently is abandoning those values and principles and setting itself to act like the very people it condemns.

There was very little of that.

Which makes me worry about the future of the right to freedom of speech.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Silas February 24, 2011 at 4:30 am

But words are physical things Alonzo. Those sound waves can cause terrible anxiety and fear and all sorts of pain. How is a hacked website any different?

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Bill Maher February 24, 2011 at 9:43 am

If you understood Anon, you would see why discussing “them” is pointless. They are thousands of trolls with thousands of opinions with contradictory stances on everything.

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Steven R. February 24, 2011 at 11:12 am

If you understood Anon, you would see why discussing “them” is pointless. They are thousands of trolls with thousands of opinions with contradictory stances on everything.  (Quote)

Pretty much this. Although the point you make is very valid, it may or may not really apply to Anonymous. It’s a weird collective.

BTW, I notice that this doesn’t really condemn their actions in terms of desirism. It would be interesting to see you argue why we should be concerned about vigilantes and violent repercussions for speech based on our desires. After all, some people desire to be able to protect the weak-minded from going into extremist positions, so I’d love to see how Desirism deals with these “negative” or wrong desires. This, I think, would really help in understanding how Desirism distinguishes itself from what would be a subjective moral theory.

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Mandusin February 24, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Anonymous never intended to mess with WBC, they provoked them and the letter is a hoax, Anonymous is more concerned about freedom of speech being denied not the other way ’round.

http://img710.imageshack.us/i/1298574786985.jpg/

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Alonzo Fyfe February 24, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Steven R.

BTW, I notice that this doesn’t really condemn their actions in terms of desirism….This, I think, would really help in understanding how Desirism distinguishes itself from what would be a subjective moral theory.

Well, actually, yes it does.

I think you are working under the false assumption that common moral discourse is “subjective” – that the theory of subjectivism, when applied to actual moral practice, is true. Thus, since my argument sounds like standard moral practice, my argument must be subjective.

I argue that common moral discourse is actually desirist and, as such, a desirist essay will be difficult to distinguish from standard moral discourse.

This essay defends the use of praise and condemnation to promote an aversion to the use of violence in response to words, and an aversion to vigilantee justice, on the bases that these aversions will prevent the desire-thwarting generally caused by people who would lack such an aversion.

Specifically, it says that agents who commented on the article, if they did not react with disbelief that Anonymous would be willing to resopnd to words with violence, had many and strong (desirist) reasons to react with condemnation of Anonymous for not having such an aversion.

And, generally speaking, many moral arguments that people think are “subjective” – actually are not. They arguments are actually desirist. An examination of those arguments show that the people making them are actually listing the many and strong reasons that people have for using social forces such as praise and condemnation to promote certain desires and aversions.

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Jeff H February 24, 2011 at 3:59 pm

As an update to this, there was an interview between Shirley Phelps and a representative from Anonymous, and during the course of the interview Anonymous ended up hacking the WBC website. Last I checked, godhatesfags.com was still down.

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Armband February 24, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Anonymous hails Westboro Baptist Church as the most successful trolls of all time. Nobody trolls like they do. Whether they actually believe the shit they say is a moot point, as it should be for everyone. They say and do horrendous shit because they can, because we think it’s important to let them.

Nobody is being hurt. You read the comments, and you took them seriously. They were written by some fat guy in a basement who hasn’t left the house in three years, and a 12-year-old boy. Anonymous is not responsible for violence, only lulz.

Still, it is good to see that Anonymous, the amoral and leaderless collective, is being held to such a high standard. We must be doing something right. Our anti-Scientology protests have died down, but we certainly hurt them. Anyone who doesn’t think that’s a good thing understands nothing of Scientology.

Anonymous always delivers. godhatesfags is down, and we laugh. This will give them, and us, more publicity. We both win.

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Mike Young February 25, 2011 at 2:48 am

The jester. That is all.

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Kip February 25, 2011 at 6:11 am

Anyone who doesn’t see why retaliating to someone’s lawful free-speech by defacing or destroying their property… doesn’t understand why free-speech is so important. What if “Anonymous” was a mob of Christian hackers… and they went around defacing and taking down atheist websites (“for the lulz”)? Would this be acceptable? No. And neither is it acceptable to deface or take down websites of those we disagree with.

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Steven R. February 25, 2011 at 9:04 am

Alonzo:

Steven R.BTW, I notice that this doesn’t really condemn their actions in terms of desirism….This, I think, would really help in understanding how Desirism distinguishes itself from what would be a subjective moral theory.Well, actually, yes it does.I think you are working under the false assumption that common moral discourse is “subjective” – that the theory of subjectivism, when applied to actual moral practice, is true. Thus, since my argument sounds like standard moral practice, my argument must be subjective.I argue that common moral discourse is actually desirist and, as such, a desirist essay will be difficult to distinguish from standard moral discourse.This essay defends the use of praise and condemnation to promote an aversion to the use of violence in response to words, and an aversion to vigilantee justice, on the bases that these aversions will prevent the desire-thwarting generally caused by people who would lack such an aversion.Specifically, it says that agents who commented on the article, if they did not react with disbelief that Anonymous would be willing to resopnd to words with violence, had many and strong (desirist) reasons to react with condemnation of Anonymous for not having such an aversion.And, generally speaking, many moral arguments that people think are “subjective” – actually are not. They arguments are actually desirist. An examination of those arguments show that the people making them are actually listing the many and strong reasons that people have for using social forces such as praise and condemnation to promote certain desires and aversions.  

I’ve been giving what you said a lot of thought and here’s the problem I’m having: how do we determine which desire is better to hold? For example, suppose I have a desire to not let weak-minded people be sold on hateful ideas. I also have a desire to stop many people from having hateful ideas. How can these two desires be weighed against the desire against vigilantism? Moreover, suppose I actually do have the desire for vigilantes and censors that promote my worldview and morals. Wouldn’t desirism say I have strong reasons to praise vigilantes and censors that agree with me and condemn those that don’t? We do see this kind of behavior all the time, look no further than the Christian Right. I don’t really see how desirism provides a basis for condemning that other than Christian censorship isn’t what I want.

The reason I said it was subjective is because the argument provided here seems to run as follows: “Doing Y would lead to X. I do not want X. You do not want X. Therefore, we shall condemn X and this will make X morally wrong”. But this seems no different than saying “Drinking spoiled milk will lead to a sour taste in your tongue. I do not like that sour taste. You do not like that sour taste. Therefore, we shall avoid that sour taste and we will call this sour taste ‘bad’” which is fine and well when it applies to most humans, but, once we go into a point of contention, say, the taste of chocolate, there is a wide-split. I’m not seeing how desirism helps overcome those differences. I can see why most people would want to avoid desire-thwarting things, but if we can satisfy stronger desires, even if it involves thwarting other’s desires, it seems that we have created a circumstance where the person has very strong reasons to continue thwarting desires provided that their own desires are met–their goal would then be to simply ensure that their goals are never thwarted and that would be the basis of their condemnation or praise.

I suppose what I have in mind when I think about objective moral systems is that it distinguishes between different goals and their respective oughts (say, “If I want to win the race, I ought to run fast”) and tells us which goal we ought to have. After all, without one, I see no reason why my goal shouldn’t be making a salad other than running a race, and the goal I choose would be solely up to my personal preference. Most of the time, regular moral discourse just says, “hey! we happen to have similar goals!” and we go off from there, but without ever establishing why we should have that goal over any other. To go to the classic example, while all the mouses may have the goal to not be ripped apart by cats, this doesn’t provide any basis for the cat to feel immoral for ripping apart a mouse–which goal is right? The one of the mouses to avert a cat or the one of the cat to rip apart mouses to sustain itself? I haven’t really run across any objective moral system that explains this to me satisfactorily.

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