Cranmer and the toxic nature of anonymous blogging

Thomas_CranmerFor those of you who don’t know, Cranmer is the name of a blog which comments on religious and political issues.  He describes himself as “Bishop of the Blogosphere, Pastor of the World Wide Web and Chaplain to the Digital Archdiocese”.

Cranmer has won a large following by expressing right-wing, traditionalist perspectives on both religion and politics with idiosyncratic wit and clever prose.  You can read a long list of commendations (and criticisms) from well-known figures which he proudly shares on the home page of his site.

‘Trolling’

Recently, Cranmer has got into a heated twitter-based argument with the Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, and his Chaplain, Canon Rosie Harper, over his criticism of her views on the Assisted Dying Bill.

I am not going to get into their disagreement on the issue itself – as can be seen by the differences between George Carey and Justin Welby, even Archbishops disagree strongly on this issue.  But sadly the argument descended in the way twitter rows often do, with the Bishop accusing Cranmer of ‘trolling’ Rosie Harper and Cranmer reacting furiously, and pompously, in his own defence.

Cloak of anonymity

The key problem this row again highlights, is that Cranmer writes under a cloak of anonymity.  This lack of openness about who it actually is expressing these opinions adds further toxicity to the frequently poisonous nature of online debate.  That it comes from an avowedly Christian perspective makes it even more incongruous.

It means that his arguments with real people – people with friends, family, followers and reputations – are not fair fights.  Cranmer writes drawing on knowledge that he has gathered in his real identity and mixes it freely with his fictional, pseudo-historical persona. Take this example from his recent post on his row:

“To be so accused by a bishop is a serious matter, especially when that bishop is one’s own temporal overseer whom one has met half-a-dozen times over the years…His Grace has also met the Bishop’s Chaplain twice. Not, of course, that either would have been aware.”

His views can run free, shared with thousands, harming or delighting people, without being anchored in the accountability which honesty and openness bring.

Accountability

I don’t pretend to be a blogger in the same league as Cranmer, but my experience over the last few years has shown me the dangers of this medium.  R&R has had almost half a million views since it started. As the numbers of readers increase, the need for accountability also rises.  Power corrupts.

What I write needs to be open to challenge when it does not connect to the life I live. What I do at work, in my community and in my church needs to correspond to what I write.  Otherwise there is too much danger of hypocrisy. How easily online personas become white-washed tombs full of old bones and corruption.

Anonymous blogging is understandable if you are living in an oppressive regime, or if you are whistle-blowing on major wrong-doing.  But neither of these categories are relevant in this case.  Cranmer’s anonymity gives a licence to say what he wants.  It is a freedom that is easily misused.

Toxic

So however popular, I think Cranmer’s blog has something toxic at its heart. It creates more problems than it helps resolve, generates more darkness than light.  And this is a theological issue – because it is not possible to stand for Christian truth through being deceptive.  We can only bear witness to truth by acting truthfully. As Paul puts it ‘Let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light’ (Romans 13:12)

A good example of intelligent and faithful debate on faith and politics is the God and Politics in the UK blog authored by Gillan Scott.  Here is a blogger who manages to write passionately and powerfully and generates a large readership.  But Gillan is open and humble about who he is. And its telling that he never goes in for spiteful remarks or cheap jibes.

Whoever is writing under the guise of this 16th century Archbishop should take note: ‘His Grace’ should add truth to his list of attributes.  Open the curtains and let the light in, share who you are and shed the cloak of anonymity.  Ultimately the truth will set you free.

Related:

About Jon Kuhrt

Jon Kuhrt works with people affected by homelessness, offending and addictions at the West London Mission. He, his wife and three children are part of Streatham Baptist Church and he is a member of the Christians on the Left. He likes football...but loves cricket.
This entry was posted in Theology & Church. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Cranmer and the toxic nature of anonymous blogging

  1. Stephen Kuhrt says:

    Yes see p 10-11 of Tom Wright’s book ‘Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision’ for a similar view of anonymous blogging. Its incredibly cowardly.

  2. Stephen Kuhrt says:

    And whilst the real Cranmer struggled with courage, not something that I think he would have approved of at all.

  3. Alan Wilson says:

    This whole thing was rather extraordinary. Adrian was obviously very cross about something my colleague had said, and pumped the retweet button no fewer than 19 times. One of his own regulars pointed out that this was a form of trolling, whipping up a mob. By their fruits ye know it, indeed — soon he had hundreds of comments from people with strange monnikers, which were frankly extraordinary — almost none of them on the topic, and all of them virulently ad hominem. I saw his commenter’s comment and retweeted it. Immediately Adrian came back and said did I agree. I said I did. If you walked into a room and jabbed the air and shouted in someone’s face 19 times over, it would look extraordinary. I thought what he had done was outrageous. He then went into a great sulk and announced he was closing down because a bishop had said he was a troll. he’s now out of it, and blogging again, with another spiteful ad hominem. In terms of the learning, there is something very strange about the Cranmer blog. If you read the stream of several hundred comments left during his two days of silence, people, mostly anonymous, talk helpfully about the kind of community they feel they are and why they value Adrian’s blog. Personally, I find he sometimes does say really insightul things that are worth hearing, albeit from a very unreaconstructed right wing perspective. I think what I learn about blogging, however, is that if you build a community on people who assume silly monnikers and sound off in a way they never would at work or at home, they reinforce the worst aspects of their characters, all you get is a seething mass of babyish sarcasm. The anger of man (and it is about 90% men — they come over as prep school masters indulging their shadow sides) really doesn’t work the righteousness of God. Compare and contrast a conversation I on my Facebook page where around 30 people, including specialist doctors, lawyers (including one who had worked on the Shipman case), care workers, bereaved relatives and others, engaged in a hugely respectful mutual conversation about assisted dying. Many points of view were expressed, including some angry ones. But all had integrity, partly, mostly perhaps, because all were accountable for what they said using their real names.

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Thanks Alan. When you form a community, whether online or otherwise, you have to take some responsibility for how they behave.

    • Dear Alan, I hate to say this, but you have made a mistake. Having had another look a the tweets in question, Cranmer only linked to his article in three tweets. The retweets you refer to are made by other people. Each time you retweet someone else’s tweet their counter goes up by one. That means 19 other people retweeted those tweets, not Cranmer.

      It is in fact impossible to retweet your own tweets. Twitter won’t allow it – do have a go if you don’t believe me.

      I normally tweet about a new blog post three or four times at different points in a day, so this practice is not unusual at all.

      I have a few anonymous commenters on my blog. Some write nonsense, but some do not. If you look at comments on the Guardian website or even the BBC’s the vast majority use anonymous monikers. People just like to do it that way.

      Facebook is the exception because you have to be invited to be part of the conversation. You don’t have the chance to hide behind a persona because then who would want to be friends with you? The downside with Facebook is that conversations are not public, which is probably why there doesn’t tend to be much debate. Your page is unusual because there are actually some high quality conversations. It’s a shame the rest of the world will never see them.

  4. I heard this recently:
    “It is all right to disagree, but what is not all right, is to be disagreeable.”

  5. MarkG says:

    I don’t really think there’s an issue here. Pseudonymous bloggers and commentators like Cranmer (and others such as Guido Fawkes and The Secret Footballer) are merely following in a long-established tradition that includes the likes of Peter Simple and Belle du Jour.

    The fact is that creating a fictionalised “brand” is an effective marketing tool, and even more so when it allows the author to give reign to greater degrees of creativity than would be possible with a straight byline. A large part of Cranmer’s appeal is the deliberately affected Cranmerian prose; it wouldn’t would work anything like as well written in the author’s natural voice.

    And yes, you can’t have a debate “on a level playing field” with a pseudonymous blog. But there’s no reason to expect to, any more than you would expect to have that debate with Dame Edna Everage. Pseudonymous blogs, to a certain extent, occupy the role of the court jester: they can say the unsayable simply because they are saying it in character. There’s nothing wrong with that, and expecting it to be otherwise is missing the point.

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Thanks for the point but I disagree. It is the way that Adrian Hilton / Cranmer mixes between a fake persona and who he has met in the real world which shows his inconsistency. Also Pseudonymous writing might be good art or journalism in the examples you give but I want to address this overtly from a Christian perspective because that is the subject matter he deals with and the persona he has adopted. Hilton/Cranmer takes such a high moral and spiritual stance that he needs to be challenged on the incongruity of writing like this under cover.

      I am not saying he should change the tone, style or the ‘voice’ but that he should be open about who writes it.

  6. Sipech says:

    On the issue of pseudonymity, the difference with ‘Cranmer’ is that he has not created an identity from scratch. He has misappropriated the identity of a dead archbishop. His use of the third person ‘His Grace’ when referring to himself is not only pompous and irritating, but it is an insult to the legacy of the real Cranmer to have the words of a failed Tory candidate put into his mouth.

  7. Thank Jon for saying such affirming things about me and God and Politics!

    This is a bit of a tricky one because I really enjoy reading Cranmer and the pseudonymous persona he has created is very clever and generally used to good effect. I haven’t been on the end of his scathing comments yet, though and can’t imagine it can be much fun when this happens.

    There are some topics that Cranmer covers that some of us are thinking, but maybe uncomfortable about bringing up in public and in that sense his blog does have an important role to play. It is deliberately challenging and is capable of stirring up strong debate, of which this is an example.

    The real problem, if there is one, is accountability. It is far harder to challenge someone if you don’t know who they are. Cranmer is certainly not always right, but often he is. If he was spouting hate or deliberately misleading people, then I would have serious concerns.

    There are a handful of people in important positions who know who he is, so there is a level of accountability, it’s just the majority of us don’t share in it. Bishop Nick Baines made a similar point to you a few years ago: http://nickbaines.wordpress.com/2009/10/17/blogging-and-the-black-dog/ It would probably be good if it was a bit easier to find out the author behind Cranmer, but it is possible if you are willing to do some searches on Google and plenty who take an interest in his blog have done so.

    I think your overall point is valid. Each of us bloggers approach it in a different way. Being public exposes you to various risks. The more vocal and challenging you are the more there is at stake. Peter Ould has crumbled under the pressure recently and taken his blog down. It would probably be helpful if Cranmer was a bit more transparent, but that’s a decision only he can make.

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Sure – thanks Gillan – as balanced and gracious as ever!

      I am sure it helps blogging under cover as it removes some of the personal pain out of it when people abuse/disagree/ignore you. And my point is not really about the content or style – its just the fact that you have to dig to find out who writes it and only a tiny fraction of those who go on the site will ever do this.

  8. Graham Weeks says:

    It does not take much effort to find Cranmer’s true identity on the web.

  9. Stephen Heard says:

    I generally agree with you about anonymous blogging; although it strikes me that it does have the virtue of allowing the blogger to say things he/she wouldn’t feel able to say openly (which, I suggest, may not be an altogether bad thing) while not actually protecting him/her from critical or even abusive response.

    But my main contention is that Cranmer should be an exception to any “openness” rule by virtue of the quality (and volume) of his output. His prose, I suggest, is not merely “clever”; it is often elegant to the point of beauty, and always, in my experience, composed on the basis of thorough scholarship/research and careful thought. I don’t always agree with him (gay marriage was a key issue of contention for me); but I do value the rigour of his argumentation and his bravely prophetic voice. He will often say things we’d prefer not to hear but need to (eg today: pointing out Synod’s preoccupation with women bishops while Christians in Iraq are on the point of obliteration). In my view, he is too important a politico-religious blogger to lose; and if his “anonymity” is the price for keeping him out there, I’ll pay it.

    I happen to think that accusing him of “trolling” is just silly. He’s too serious for that.

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Thanks Stephen for your thoughtful comment. I wonder whether the quality and volume of his output should make any difference to the ethical point about not being open about who you really are. I think the same point applies to other Christian anonymous bloggers – even though they might be nicer and less controversial than Cranmer – I simply don’t understand what is gained by being secretive and what is lost by being open.

      But your comment got me thinking – is it possible to be prophetic under cover? I don’t think we see that model in the Bible – the prophets stand by their unpopular views and take the hassle that follows. I agree we need people to say brave things and go against the flow and I appreciate people on both right and left who do that – but I think being open about who is saying what is being said is fundamental. Otherwise you are already distancing yourself from your opinions. And the gap which opens up is very prone to being filled with bad things – such as judgmentalism, pomposity and a lack of due care for people’s feelings. All of which would be less likely if someone was writing openly as themselves.

  10. Ian says:

    Glad to see he is no longer anonymous!

  11. Calgal says:

    I take it, you don’t care for Archbishop Cranmer. Has it ever occurred to you that in a free society, anonymity would not be necessary as one’s personal safety of self and position because of opinion, would not be threatened? His anonymity is a symptom of existing in a Marxist society that is lost on the process of critical thinking. This society cringes with a fascist vengeance at those whose opinions differ from their own. I would put forth that keeping one’s anonymity is the only way a contrary opinion can exist. The blame lies with you, not Archbishop Cranmer.

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Hi Calgal – thanks for reading and for your comment. I find it hilarious that you think we live in a Marxist society which threatens the ‘personal safety’ of people who express their opinions. It sounds like you need to get a better perspective on what truly oppressive behaviour looks like.

      Can you give some examples of the oppression that you are defending Cranmer from? It is worth saying that it’s not so much that I don’t like Cranmer as I didn’t like the anonymous nature of his blog.

      But also this is an old issue as he seemed to agree with me and shortly afterwards shed his anonymity. Jon

      • Calgal says:

        My reply as to your liking of Cranmer was merely a response after reading YOUR article. Frankly, I’m not surprised that you would not understand that the Liberal ideology is basically Marxism packaged as humanitarianism. This is because of the reactive response of those espousing this ideology. I would expect nothing less than a laugh because of the innate inability to reason or think critically as mentioned previously. Anonymity is not new to comments or dissension as even another commentor posted. I suppose you consider others turning you into the police for your words to be trivial. You be alone in that. Although America is pushing back at Marxist Liberalism, you are already in the matrix of it and are asleep. If you need reference links just Google, Liberals and Progressives Marxist ideology. For the intellectually honest, it’s all there. It’s time to wake up, Jon.

      • Jon Kuhrt says:

        Ok – are you in the UK or the US? It’s easy to name-call and label, but seriously in what way is either society Marxist? So often I have seen labels like this used so unspecifically that they are little more than terms of abuse which basically mean ‘bad’ rather than being rooted in anything which could historically or politically be described as genuinely Marxist.

        I am sure you disagree with things I have written but there is a wide range of opinion on this blog that I would encourage you to read before marking such sweeping comments. I have recently left the Labour Party due to its current unelectably left wing position and have written and spoken frequently against hard left positions which could be described as quasi-Marxist.

        So disagree all you want – but let’s leave the easy labeling as the internet is already full enough of that. Let’s be specific and precise about the things you disagree with.

  12. Pingback: Archbishop Cranmer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s