Emacsen's Blog

The Value of Outstretched Arms in Free Software

In 2004, I was sitting in my living room watching one of my favorite programs- Frontline- a PBS show doing investigative journalism on a variety of topics.

This particular episode, "The Persuaders" was about advertising was not only changing the way we buy but the way we think. As part of this discussion, they examined cults- including the Hare Krishnas to "cult brands" like Apple.

As an example, they showed a person talking about Linux and how some people were "part of the tribe". While they never showed the person's name, I recognized them and that moment struck me. It was like I was seeing myself in the mirror- I had spoken that way in the past, but seeing it in front of me, I realized I never wanted to look or think like that in the future.

Being part of a community is important. I've spoken in the past about how being part of the Free Software movement literally saved my life. Being part of the this movement also included breaking free of terms like "Intellectual Property", which has an impact on the way we think about these topics. It's also meant that I've discouraged the use of proprietary formats such as Microsoft Office, when the OpenDocument Format is both available and standardizes.

At the same time, I've also seen people inadvertently use Free Software to divide or shame people. If someone uses the "wrong word" (for example Open Source instead of Free Software or Linux instead of GNU/Linux), or admitting to use proprietary software, they may get an earful from someone in the Free Software community.

I've thought a lot about why this is and my conclusion is there are three reasons why Free Software advocates become this intense about terms and phrasing. The first is that as we've learned about the ways that our society has indoctrinated us into thinking about these topics (including the idea that copyright is paramount to property), that we're motivated in the same way to help others break free of the mind-control that we were under. We want to liberate them the same way we ourselves were liberated.

The second reason is less altruistic but I think sadly just as true, which is that these verbal signals are part of, as the "Linux user" in Frontline said. When I got my bachelors in Psychology, I learned about the idea of cognitive dissonance and how it makes us love things we sufferfor. I believe that some of our strong reactions are part of this unconscious desire to "bring people into the fold", doing the same kind of thing that was done to us.

Lastly and possibly most importantly, while such people are highly disruptive and hurtful, in reality, they represent a small minority of the community.

When I started the Libre Lounge podcast with my friend Chris Webber, one of my goals was to widen the umbrella and embrace more people into Free Software with open arms. We want to bring new people to Free Software and help them see that we are a warm and caring community.

In doing that, we've talked about a variety of topics, worked hard to bring on guests with varying backgrounds, connected larger cultural movements to our own, and generally tried to retain the sense of fun and playfulness that we think is so important in maintaining a healthy community.

Occasionally disputes arise around terminology and in those moments, I'm reminded of the old joke by Emo Philips:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!" He said, "Nobody loves me." I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"

He said, "Yes." I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?" He said, "A Christian." I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me, too! What franchise?" He said, "Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?" He said, "Northern Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"

He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region." I said, "Me, too!"

Northern Conservative†Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912." I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over.

When we argue about who is "more pure" or when we tell people that they're bad or evil because they don't use either the same software stack we do, or use the same terminology we do- then we've lost the point of Free Software, which is to spread Freedom.

Be the person who welcomes, not the one who shuns.