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Speaking Truth to Power Sometimes Involves Yelling

Jan 04, 2008, 23:30 (33 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

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By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

My colleague Bruce Byfield made some good points in his recent blog entry "Conspiracy theorists and free software." In it, he outlines his concerns that there is a vocal faction in the free software community that is too obsessed with a certain proprietary company, and that their rants and raves amount to so much rabble-rousing, which ultimately hurts the community at large.

Byfield, who I think is an excellent writer, by the way, may be projecting a little bit of his own defensiveness in this entry. I know he's been on the receiving end of some harsh criticisms in the past, and I know from personal experience it's pretty disheartening. Even if he is not writing out of pique, he's not saying anything that hasn't been said before. I've said it myself: not everything wrong with Linux is the fault of some other entity. Sometimes a problem is Linux' problem.

It is, admittedly, very easy to put the blame on companies out to do harm to Linux, free, and open source software. Because sometimes that blame is justified. When Mandriva's CEO called Microsoft out for attempting to co-op Mandriva's deal for pre-loaded Classmate PCs in Nigeria last November, the evidence was pretty overwhelming.

Now, there's suddenly a lawsuit against the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project in that same country, claiming patent infringement on the part of OLPC, and demanding $20 million. "Conspiracy theorists" might say this is just one more attempt to protect Microsoft's desktop share in Nigeria. Heck, I could get really crazy and point the finger at Intel, now that they're on the outs with OLPC. Or even... (hushed whisper) Mandriva. We know how evil they are!

In all honesty, I have no idea what's behind this lawsuit. It's probably just for money, in the classic ambulance-chaser style, and I will let it go at that until I hear differently.

Byfield would have the people who accuse Microsoft or any other company of deception labeled as conspiracy theorists. That label has a negative connotation, but I understand its application in this instance. Where I disagree with Byfield is how bad such accusations and speculations really are.

First, let's understand something: I am not arguing for or against the accuracy of these types of allegations. As a reporter, I tend to ignore them, because they are unsubstantiated. But sometimes thinking about things that are off the wall to most people does generate lines of thought that would not occur to the group at large.

Polite society is too quick to dismiss the ranters. Their style of argument, their seeming obsession... it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Many times, that's the whole point--to jar people out of their comfort zones. The problem is, such repetitive, obsessive, rude behavior does not always make such folk right. They could be, and are, way off the mark.

Sometimes, however, they are right. Or they're on the right track. For that reason, such arguments deserve to be heard and not dismissed out of hand.

Would I be happy if all conversations regarding free software were civil and polite and only reasoned arguments were used? Of course I would... I think such discussions are ultimately more constructive.

But I do not think that all uncivil, emotionally reasoned arguments should be completely ignored, either. They may not be pleasant, but the truth can come in many forms.