The GNU Radical

A friend of mine, Blaise, once told me not to introduce myself as “… what you would call a radical…”. He had listened to me talking to a person who were questioning what a Free Software activist does. My friend’s rationale, to which I totally agree, is that you must let the other person decide whether she thinks you are a “radical” or not. In other words, if you say you are a “radical” from the beginning, it will probably induce the other person to a pre-judgement about you, which is not good for you and for her.

As I said, I agree with him. But I am going through a lot of situations in my life that are constantly reminding me that, maybe, I am that “radical” after all. I do not know whether this is good or bad, and I can say I have been questioning myself for a while now. This post, by the way, is going to be a lot about self-questioning.

Maybe the problem is that I am expecting too much from those that have the same beliefs that I do. Or maybe the cause is that I do not know what to expect from them in certain situations, and I am disappointed when I see that they do not follow what I think is best sometimes. On the other hand, when I look myself in the mirror, I do not know whether I am totally following what I think is best; and if I am not, then how can I even consider telling others to do that? And even if I am following my own advices, how can I be sure that they are good enough for others?

One good example of this is my opinion about FSF’s use of Twitter. The opinion is public, and has been criticized by many people already, including Free Software supporters. Shortly after I wrote the post, I mentioned it to Richard Stallman, and he told me he was not going to read it because he considered it “too emotional”. I felt deeply sad because of his reaction, especially because it came from someone who often appeals to emotions in order to teach what he has to say. But I also started questioning myself about the topic.

Is it really bad to use Twitter? This is what I ask myself sometimes. I see so many people using it, including those who defend Free Software as I do (like Matt Lee), or those who stand against privacy abuses (like Jacob Appelbaum), or who are worried about social causes, or… Yeah, you got the point. I refuse to believe that they did not think about Twitter’s issues, or about how they would be endorsing its use by using it themselves. Yet, they are there, and a lot of people is following their posts and discussing their opinions and ideas for a better world. As much as I try to understand their motivation for using Twitter (or even Facebook), I cannot convince myself that what they are doing is good for their goals. Am I being too narrow minded? Am I missing something?

Another example are my thoughts about Free Software programs that support (and sometimes even promote) unethical services. They (the thoughts) are also public. And it seems that this opinion, which is about something I called “Respectful Software”, is too strong (or “radical”?) for the majority of the developers, even considering Free Software developers. I saw very good arguments on why Free Software should support unethical services, and it is hard to disagree with them. I guess the best of those arguments is that when you support unethical services like Facebook, you are offering a Free Software option for those who want or need to use the service. In other words, you are helping them to slowly get rid of the digital handcuffs.

It seems like all those arguments (about Twitter, about implementing support for proprietary systems on Free Software, and others) are ultimately about reaching users that would otherwise remain ignorant of the Free Software philosophy. And how can someone have counter-arguments for this? It is impossible to argue that we do not need to take the Free Software message to everybody, because when someone does not use Free Software, she is doing harm to her community (thus, we want more people using Free Software, of course). When the Free Software Foundation makes use of Twitter to bring more people to the movement, and when I see that despite talking to people all around me I can hardly convince them to try GNU/Linux, who am I to criticize the FSF?

So, I have been thinking to myself whether it is time to change. What I am realizing more and more is that my fight for coherence perhaps is flawed. We are incoherent by nature. And the truth is that, no matter what we do, people change according to their own time, their own will, and their own beliefs (or to the lack of them). I remembered something that I once heard: changing is not binary, changing is a process. So, after all, maybe it is time to stop being a “GNU radical” (in the sense that I am radical even for the GNU project), and become a new type of activist.