A really long time ago, I was in my school’s debate team. I wasn’t very good. The first time I went for a competition, I was ultra-nervous, I was speaking really quickly, I didn’t take any questions from the opposing team, and I did every mistake that a debater wasn’t supposed to do. Yes, we didn’t win. Weeks later, I gave some excuse and quit the team. I wasn’t frustrated with losing but I had issues with the concept of debates. I mean, here we were, arguing for or against something and then the judges choose the winner and the best speaker. But so what? At the end of the day, nothing ‘productive’ seems to have happened. The world goes on about its own course and things continue the way they were. But hey, I didn’t dwell on it too much. After all, I was only 15-years old; there were plenty of other things to worry about!
When I got to my pre-university institution, I decided to just pop by one of the debate team’s meetings and I found something that shocked me. In my earlier school, teams were given the topic to debate on a week before the actual competition. Here, the norm apparently was to give the topic about an hour before the competition. How was anyone supposed speak on anything and make sense after only an hour of research? Even if one was well-read, one needs time to think deeply and clearly about a situation and reason about its nuances to give any kind of judgement. This then raised the question: what the hell was the point of these debates other than a temporary boost of ego to the winning team?
Okay, I admit I am being very harsh to those who love debates and enjoy them. I’ll concede that me not being good in debates or verbal arguments in general might have something to do with my dislike. But that said, I personally find debates annoying and I try not to pay attention to them. Neither do I participate in them. If anyone wants to argue about something substantial to me, they better do it in writing and give me time to think before responding. Besides, writing also forces them to state their views clearly. That’s a plus.
But really, how useful are written arguments? It seems to me that people gravitate towards articles and books that are sympathetic to their point of view and ignore the rest that aren’t. For example, let’s take the group of people who hate free software or the GPL. I’d really like to know how many of such people have actually read Richard Stallman’s articles. I’ve had conversations about free software with a few people. This one person said: “I don’t believe in free software. I am a capitalist, why should I give away software for free?”. Another person said (I’m copying verbatim): “I know [free software] was your fundamental belief. But the thing is that all big companies are ultimately for-profit, and the world does need for-profit companies. Being for profit gives them the ability to be big, to have the resources to innovate, disrupt, etc.”.
If these two people spent some time reading Richard Stallman’s essays, they would have known that the “free” in “free software” stands for “freedom” and not price. They would also have known that selling free software is ok! But let’s say they did read Stallman’s essays. How likely is it then that they would change their opinions and think “oh yeah, proprietary software is bad, free software is good.”? Intuitively, it just seems like very few would. The rest would just give some other justification for proprietary software.
So what now? Because, honestly, we seem to be in a pickle. If verbal and written debates “don’t work”, what would? The answer might be engraved in Karl Marx’s tomb stone
or in Elvis Presley’s song.
So what matters, apparently, is what we do. It doesn’t matter so much whether I think or say that free software is important. What matters is whether I use free software, make free software, and contribute to the community. Now, this does seem to be a great way of looking at things. After all, who cares what my friend working in Microsoft says. I’ll just continue doing what I do for free software. Any time I spend debating with him is time away from my work. I’ll just focus on my own thing and do what I think is right. Incidentally, this also seems to be how the world works. Ever heard of the phrase “silent majority”? Maybe the silent majority are silent precisely because they just want to get on with their lives instead of being caught up with the squabbles of the vocal minority.
But this too is problematic. If every group does its own thing without regarding the other, then how could anyone hope for a progressive movement and a better future? Each group will just circle about on their own until they inevitably clash at some overlapping point. Such clashes can be frequently observed between the free software and proprietary software movement. A recent one is the controversy surrounding Microsoft’s secure-boot requirement for ARM-based hardware. Microsoft doesn’t allow certified ARM-based hardware developers to provide users the option of disabling secure boot, making it impossible to boot alternative operating systems. Free Software activists argue that this goes against the user’s freedom but apparently there are also those who find no problem with the requirement. How are such clashes resolved? Probably not via a mutual agreement and understanding.
So what matters? How should the world progress? How should people discuss conflicting ideas and agree on a common path forward? How does cooperation take more of an active place in society? I have no idea.