September 8, 2004

The futility of arguing with paid advocates

I once stood in a hotel lobby in Amman, Jordan, listening quietly as a passionate GNU/Linux advocate tried to get Microsoft employees to agree that free software would be better for the Muslim world than proprietary software. His opponents were getting paid to boost Microsoft and proprietary software and couldn't change their beliefs -- at least in public -- without losing their jobs, so there was no way the Linux advocate could "win" this argument. I've witnessed similar scenes all over the world, and cringed at every one. Linux boosters shouldn't waste their (our) energy trying to convince unconvicable people. There are better uses for that passion.A month or so ago TheLinuxShow had notorious anti-GPL fudster Ken Brown of AdTI as a guest. The show regulars and guest Eric S. Raymond were arguing with him. Sure, the points they made were valid, and Brown's rebuttals were poor, but Eric and the others displayed a major amount of anger toward Brown, even though when you came right down to Ken was just a working stiff doing his job.

After about half an hour of Brown putting out his "Linux is just a Unix derivative and Linus Torvalds couldn't possibly have written it" party line while his interlocuters grew progressively more agitated, LinuxShow co-producer Arne Flores invited me to call in, which I did.

I had exactly one question for Brown: "How much would it cost to have you stop putting out the Microsoft party line and start advocating Linux instead?"

His answer: "We could talk about that..."

Another time a NewsForge coworker, one we'll call "Joe Barr" to disguise his true identity, got horribly upset by a young Washington, D.C., lawyer/lobbyist who is paid to talk about the wonders of proprietary software and the evils of the GPL. I later chatted with this young lawyer off the record, and he's a nice guy with a new mortgage and a kid on the way, working for an industry association to pay his bills. His job is to be that industry association's mouthpiece. Whether or not he believes in their "cause" is not an issue. He's a lawyer, working from the thesis that all points of view deserve the best representation they can get -- or, in this case, can afford. If the Free Software Foundation hired this man away from his current employer, he'd instantly become a strong GPL booster.

Mercenaries vs. believers

Lawyers love to tell you that anyone who represents himself or herself in court has a fool for a client. Sometimes, listening to paid proprietary software advocates debate passionate free software believers, I'm inclined to agree with this thought. It's not easy to set aside your own beliefs and consider how you sound to people who don't share them. If you believe free software is good and propretary software is evil, it's easy to get frustrated when you are faced with arguments against what you perceive as truth; to become angry; to raise your voice and resort to name-calling or start sputtering in helpless fury. Meanwhile, your paid opponent is dispassionately making points with the audience by remaining calm and appearing rational. He or she is concentrating on the act of persuasion, not on the ideas being discussed.

I was heartened when the Open Source Development Lab (OSDL) hired skilled marketer Stu Cohen as its CEO instead of choosing a more technically-oriented person or hiring someone from the "true believer" community. Stu may or may not be a died-in-the-wool Linux or free software believer, but he is an effective Linux advocate who is busily getting companies all over the world to join OSDL and help support Linux development. In the end, this is what counts, not whether his personal laptop runs Windows or Linux -- or, if it runs Linux, that it is free of closed-source software.

Stepping outside of yourself

I know the GPL is a sane software license that helps guarantee both users' and developers' rights while allowing rapid development -- because improvements in GPL software are shared by all users and developers instead of being "locked up" behind proprietary licensing walls.

But I also know that this reality is not obvious to everyone, and that people or companies that have spent decades in the proprietary software business have a knee-jerk negative reaction to the GPL. Telling these people, "You are wrong, you are evil, you are ruining the world and you have bad breath," doesn't win friends or influence people. Not only won't you change the minds of the people to whom you're saying this, you will alienate everyone within earshot.

So let's try another approach: Let's not speak directly to the proprietary apologists. Let's listen to them politely, nod sagely when appropriate, then address the other people in the room in a slow, measured tone. And when we address that audience, let's not react negatively to what our opponents say, but speak of the benefits of free and open source software. When we do this, we come across as sane and knowledgable. We are the wise ones, the ones who have the answers.

Ideally, you speak to the audience while the paid proprietary advocate speaks to you. If your opponent puts out a full-out lie like the, "College student Linus Torvalds couldn't possibly have written Linux from scratch," line some of the FUD-people are putting out these days, you don't refute this point eye-to-eye, but look at the audience and say, perhaps with a bit of sadness in your voice, "We all know better than to believe this canard, don't we?" Then, immediately, move on and point out an advantage of Linux and open source.

When you speak from your heart there is a natural tendency to look directly into the eyes of the person to whom you are speaking. But when we're confronting paid proprietary software apologists, we need to remember that we are not speaking to them. They are not the people we are trying to convince.

The people who are important to us -- and with whom we want to make eye contact -- are the audience members. They -- not the paid advocates -- are the ones who decide whether or not they or their organizations are going to use free or open source software. Even if they are locked into proprietary software today, if we open their minds to the positive potential of open source and get them thinking about it, we have been successful Linux advocates no matter how much FUD we must brush out of the way to achieve that goal.


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