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Editor's Note: On RMS

Civility in the Marketplace of Ideas

  • September 18, 2000
  • By Kevin Reichard

As a native Minnesotan, I am relatively averse to conflict. All those stories you hear about the repressed, tight-lipped conflict-avoiding Midwesterners are true. It's best just to keep quiet when conflict is brewing, since there's no sense in getting all het up about somethat will work itself out one way or another anyhow.

Which is why I watch the conflicts in the Linux world with a good measure of amusement and detachment. Really, when it comes to whether the majority of Linux users adopt KDE or GNOME, it's not worth a lot of mental energy; users usually move in the direction of their self-interest, enlightened or not. I don't particularly care about toolkits, as most programmers will use the one that best fits their needs. Since I dislike being defined by others, it matters little to me what Microsoft is doing at any particular moment. And the nature of many of the hot-buttons issues in the Linux community really does throw me for a loop.

But what mystifies me the most is the amount of vehemence that Richard Stallman provokes whenever he weighs in on a subject. I have seen this time and time again, most recently regarding licensing issues surrounding KDE, Qt, and Python. In these cases, RMS was asked his opinion regarding licenses by many folks--including TrollTech, BeOpen, and Linux Today--and in each case Stallman responded in a professional and constructive manner. He didn't go out in search of fights, and in the case of TrollTech and BeOpen I was told both on and off the record that RMS had proven to be very helpful. Similarly, when we were seeking comments on licensing issues for LinuxToday, RMS was very helpful.

That's why it's so distressing to me to see the reaction he engendered from people on Linux Today and Slashdot. The talkbacks in both public forums were filled with anger and denouncement. He was called a fascist, a dictator, and a communist. Readers felt compelled to make pointed personal attacks on RMS in the course of disagreeing with him. I have disagreed with RMS in the past (I don't agree with his stands re Linux vs. GNU/Linux) and I probably will again in the future. But on the big issues--the importance of Open Source/Free Software, the motivations behind the GNU Public License, the need for a set of convictions in your life, and why organizations like the Free Software Foundation are important--I totally agree with RMS, and I can respect where he's coming from. But let me make something personally clear: he was invited to contribute his opinions to Linux Today. He didn't force himself on anyone.

I won't say that I know Stallman past a professional acquaintance; our paths have crossed many times over the years, first in the days when I was writing actively about the X Window System (which, in many ways, is the true precursor of open-source technology) and he was initially becoming known for his viewpoints regarding Free Software.

One of the things I love about the Linux and Open Source/Free Software world is the passion that most of us bring to both Linux and our lives. But sometimes we let these passions run awry, and in the process we personalize issues that should and can be discussed without a great deal of rancor. Is it important that Python 1.6 be released with a license that conforms to the GPL? It was important enough for the Python organizers to ask RMS's opinion. Was it important for TrollTech to change the licensing terms for Qt? Yes, which is why they asked for comment from RMS. And it was important enough for Linux Today to ask for a comment.

This may be the Minnesotan in me talking, but here's some unsolicited advice to who think RMS is too much of an absolutist: take some time and read what he's written recently. And, more importantly, stop personalizing issues: we can all benefit from an open discussion of ideas, and RMS certainly brings important ideas to the table.

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