Sunday, January 6, 2008

Free software, free speech

Although I have never been a member of a debating club, I have debated all my life. It love it, the arguments, the traps, the provocations, the dilemmas, all the instruments you can utilize to win a discussion. If you win, your ego is boosted and when you lose you have at least learned something. But there are a few tale-tell signs that indicate you've reached the end of the line. When your opponent tells you to shut up, he's in fact waving the white flag. When the name-calling starts it means he is out for a final, berserk attack. It's not about the issue anymore, it's about you, the messenger.

I can understand that a teenage, underprivileged geek reacts like that, but not mature people who are blessed with the gift of words and the privilege of a good education. Regular visitors of my blog know that nothing outrages me more than people who apply these guerrilla tactics. Whether it is Ian Ferguson who said that "the flaming Linux bigots should take a backseat", Mohit Joshi, who equaled GNU to communism or the more recently Bruce Byfield, who obviously couldn't take the heat anymore and decided to proclaim unilaterally that all bloggers who don't agree with him are automatically "conspiracy theorists".

What actually shocked me is that this attack came this time from within the Open Source community. What shocked me even more is that there were people that actually agreed with him! If free speech disappears, what does free software mean? "Free" like in "free beer"? Freedom of speech is one of the cornerstones of our modern civilization. This right has been laid down in the American Constitution. It is called "The First Amendment". And it is not the first one for nothing. I cannot imagine that there are actually people who would applaud the repeal of the First Amendment. It would be a return to the dark ages.

The Internet made it possible for many people to express their views and make them known to a large audience. The lack of moderation on the other hand results of course in a wide range of publications of various quality. In the end, it is the reader who decides what is worth reading and what not. Information overflow may not be the best thing, but I think we can agree that an information monopoly is worse.

Those who are professionally involved have a special responsibility. First of all, their words are taken more seriously than the ones of an occasional blogger, just like the judgement of an MD is taken more seriously than the one of a quack. Consequently, I expect people of the free press to defend the right of free speech, not to call for its restriction or abolishment. Second, their words have more exposure than those of an occasional blogger. If you express an opinion there will always be someone who doesn't agree with you. If he's a mature, well-spoken and educated man you will get a civilized response. If he's not, you won't. In Dutch there is a proverb that says "Hoge bomen vangen veel wind", meaning that the more important you are the more criticism you get. That comes with the trade. That is professionalism. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

Every single blogger - whether professional or amateur - has to face the music. If you write, you get flamed. Swallow your professional pride and listen; you might learn something. And if you do, there is no shame in admitting you were wrong. It's a humbling experience, but also a valuable life lesson. If you do not win a discussion you may be defeated but that doesn't mean you have to be a loser.


Anonymous said...

I just watched a PBS program re Athens during the time of Socrates which was a great review for those of us that didn't retain all our early history material. They believed in free-speech until Socrates started telling them things about themselves that they did not want to hear. Sometime after they ordered him to drink the hemlock, they realized that they had made a mistake. Let's hope that history does not repeat itself in this regard.

I am not a debater. But when having discussions like you've described, I can recognize that denial isn't only a river in Egypt.

Anonymous said...

Nice postings on your blog and very true.

Anonymous said...

Zie je jezelf nou al als hoge boom ;-)
Nah nevermind, amusing blog.

Anonymous said...

True. My knee-jerk reaction to them will be just "you're discrediting the messenger, which is a logical fallacy", instead of "oh my, I'm a conspiracy theorist!I am a crazy misfit!".

Anyway the free speech I am respecting most at the moment is the free code I am running on.8)

Carlos Niebla Becerra said...

it's called 'ad-hominem'

Anonymous said...

Listen. I agreed with many of your points posed in this entry of yours. However, it appears that you made a comment on Byfield's blog that seems to be a bit harsh to me. I do believe that he acknowledged one of your main points: that blogging is going to get feedback sooner or later. Sometimes, it's quite negative. Sometimes, it's not.

Anonymous said...

i agree with you. nice posting :)