Misprision of Identity
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Misprision of Identity

Misprision the deliberate concealment of one's knowledge of a crime. . .

A misreading, misunderstanding, etc.

A failure to appreciate the value of a thing. . .

(Concise Oxford Dictionary)

There are options in the forms of identity that Charland's subjects assume. There are options as well in the meaning of this title, which may apply severally or individually to the choices under consideration. Are those who change their identity with labels—or reject labels—correctly assuming accurate descriptions, or incorrectly misleading themselves and some others? In which of these cases are observation and intervention ethical, and do they pose demands on medical ethicists, or should they simply be ignored?

Types of Autonomy

Participants in chat rooms on the Internet may justifiably be considered to be individuals who are seeking a current method of communication to promote a view of themselves, or ideas that they possess, or projects that they endorse. In this they may resemble others who have used more traditional methods of presenting their ideas, their claims, their wares, hard merchandise, literary material, or political or philosophical propositions to the public at large. These others may be sales persons, advertisers, poets, singers, clowns, buskers, politicians, preachers, missionaries, learned public speakers, television presenters, news commentators (but not necessarily reporters), and anyone indeed who talks to other people in public about matters that she or he wishes to bring forward. They have a point they want to make. They may be grouping themselves as 'survivors' or pro-anorexia, or Multiple Personality Disorder victims, but they are not necessarily operating as patients who are looking for a fiduciary relationship with physicians or other health care practitioners. It is thus a long step to turn them into individuals who may have a claim on the doctor–patient relationship.

Do we wish to undertake research on them? Research or study in the first instance for these circumstances must be in the field of social science. The rules of what it is ethical for a sociologist to do apply first. The rules of situations where one person has more power and the other depends on that individual for assistance without exploitation may differ considerably from case to case. In so far as there may be some special rules as to what is fair, reasonable, just, kind, merciful, or prudent to study individuals who expose themselves and their interests publicly, this is perhaps best done first by reference to standards for journalists.

That criterion may be too lenient a standard for most health professionals because journalists seem to be quite willing to expose the subjects of their observations to public obloquy and to [End Page 351] present information about many individuals—information that the persons themselves do not consent to see in the public domain, but that the journalist, having acquired, feels entitled to make known. Still there are believed to be some standards that journalists observe and these tend to protect the weak and the more vulnerable, although that does not mean that they are regularly followed. They tend to emphasize not printing material that is salacious or very lewd and would have personal reference, but they do not withhold comparable information if they consider that it is accurate and describes the behavior of individuals who are of interest to the public which, in certain circumstances, may mean almost anybody.

So up to this point it seems that our normal respect for the autonomy of the individual in chat rooms can be balanced against our interest in freedom of speech, which leads to open and very broadly based publication of information and observations.

The Burden of the Label

Once the medical label is affixed, a different level of stringency begins to apply to what may be studied or published. Because we feel that individuals' self-esteem is at risk and perhaps their lives, we hesitate to make cutting or pejorative comments about distressed people. Such diagnoses as cancer or depression may be held back from the patient (and, certainly, in the case of depression, even more may be kept from others around the patient). Likewise unspoken thoughts may be automatically acknowledged and, like radical material, may be carefully segregated and...