The free software community has been around for quite some time now–longer than I remember, since I’ve only joined in the past few years. And for some reason, though that time seems to have been spent on good works that benefit humanity, and advocacy that teaches people how to be free, the movement is sometimes the object of some hostility.
With every blog post, I encourage people to comment by emailing me, but for this post in particular, I’d like to make a special request for feedback, because this particular problem is a very important one to solve. If you have any ideas about how to further explain the below points, please email me.
One complaint I’ve seen very often is that free software advocates are mostly zealots. However, whenever I come up against that complaint, I turn to the dictionary definition of “zealot” and find the following:
- One who is zealous, especially excessively so.
- A fanatically committed person.
Both of these possible definitions involve some version of “excessive”, but that has never made sense to me. The second definition also includes some sense of irrationality, which also makes very little sense. Free software advocates love freedom, it’s true, and would rather have freedom than convenience. But that exact choice, and the preference free software advocates tend to have, are exactly the subjects of many romantic depictions of heroic figures, both in history and in fiction. New Jersey still immortalizes it on their license plates, and countless authors continue to speak highly of those who choose freedom. So why should any commitment to that ideal be considered excessive?
The next example of hostility is the name-calling that happens from time to time. Free software advocates are sometimes called zealots, as explained above. But several other names are also in use.
The first, and probably most offensive, is “freetard”. This term is particularly bad because it also perpetuates the use of the term “retard”, which is itself extremely offensive. But tying that term to the honorable choice to be free seems especially wrong. Implying that digital freedom is caused by some lack of mental capacity simply doesn’t make sense.
The next term is “bully”, used sometimes by people who seem to think free software advocates are too insistent. This is a bit strange, too, since most of the tactics used by the majority of free software advocates are very passive. This term was probably brought on by some of the more controversial tactics used by the Free Software Foundation, which itself tends to use name-calling on occasion. But that organization, while very important, does not dictate the actions of the rest of the community. Their philosophy articles are helpful, and they have good ideas, but their actions don’t need to reflect on all free software advocates.
The last term people use, falsely in my opinion, is something similar to “communist”. Now, this particular example may not be terribly offensive, since the days of the Cold War are gone. But using terms that are untrue doesn’t help anyone. I hope to soon write further on this subject, but to briefly summarize, free software allows for too much freedom among people, and the free market would soon bring people to release their own versions of things, possibly for money. Socialism and communism, and similar systems, wouldn’t be fertile ground for software freedom; or perhaps more appropriately, free software wouldn’t be contained by those systems for very long. This is pretty clearly caused by the “open source” branch of the movement, where people emphasize giving back to the community, and communal ownership of the creative works in the society, but even that community appears to be more motivated by capitalistic intentions than anything else.
There are a few possible reasons listed above, but I’m hoping to come to a more unified theory, since none of the individual incidents seem to be self-explanatory.
One idea I had was that people might be seeing free software as a threat to the software industry. Many people confuse “free” as being mostly related to the price of the software, so their hostility might be caused by a concern that profits would be lost if free software took hold. Of course, Making Money Ethically is a potentially helpful solution to that concern, but very few people understand the concepts set forth there, and even fewer would consider actually implementing those concepts.
In closing, I’d like to reiterate my call for feedback. I don’t know why people react the way they do to free software advocates, but I’d like to revisit this question with some more interesting data. If you think you have an answer, I’d love to get an email from you. If you think negatively about the free software movement in some way, can you trace your perception back to something concrete? Please contact me with any information you might have, and if possible, indicate whether you’re comfortable having your email reprinted on this blog.
Thanks for reading, and as always go freely!