When cults of personality clash

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Dec 11, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

A few weeks ago, Aaron Seigo wrote about the harmful effects that cults of personality have on the free software community. I responded by talking about how writers like me encourage this form of hero-worship. 

But what, you wonder, could possibly be worse than a cult of personality?

In the last few days, one answer that has emerged is two cults of personality in conflict, distracting the community from important discussions.

I'm referring to Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman's condemnation of Ubuntu's new practice of including results from Amazon and other retailers in Unity's dash search, and Ubuntu Community Manager Jono Bacon's responses.

Stallman, as you may have seen, described this feature as "spyware," and called on free software advocates to "tell people that Ubuntu is shunned for spying." Bacon, in turn, called Stallman's remarks "FUD" then three days later apologized for also describing them as "childish."

Ever since, people across the Internet have been wading in to explain why they think Stallman was or wasn't right, or why they think Bacon shouldn't have apologized. As they do so, the original issue of the Amazon search results threatens to be forgotten.

Celebrity versus nuance

I worded the above summary carefully. Notice that I did not say that people defended or attacked Stallman's or Bacon's position; I said that they defended or attacked Stallman or Bacon. In other words, the issues have become less important than the personalities involved.

This tendency is especially obvious when people talk about Stallman. A few commenters express a hero worship of Stallman. Others take the time to accuse him of name-calling and eccentricity, or to dismiss him as a hopeless idealist or as arrogant.

Fewer comments were directed at Bacon, but those that were accused him of evading the issue and being an apologist for Ubuntu.

Some of these descriptions of Stallman or Bacon might contain a grain of truth, but that is beside the point.
What should matter here is that, instead of discussing the issues, many people are taking sides instead. They are insisting that either Stallman or Bacon is right, and excluding the possibility of any middle ground.

Few are considering, for instance, that neither might be completely admirable. Personally, I incline to Stallman's position, but I can't help thinking that he weakened his position -- to say nothing of his authority -- by bringing it up two months after the issue first appeared when there are no fresh events to justify it. His assumption, too, that he has any authority -- even if it is moral -- over any company or project that attracts his attention is more likely to cause offense than convince anyone that he is correct.

However, Bacon's responses are equally mixed. Initially, he claims only to be presenting facts, and it is true that the feature has been improved immensely since it was first introduced -- a fact that Stallman does not acknowlege. 

Bacon's name-calling, though, makes his mention of respectful discussion sound like simply another tactic. The skeptical might also observe that he skates over questions of why, if problems exist, Ubuntu did not delay implementation of the feature until they were solved. Nor does he gain credibility when he dismisses security concerns as a matter of opinion. 

It is only in his apology that Bacon remembers that he and Stallman have some common goals as well as some conflicting ones -- something Stallman does not seem to notice.

But such are the nuances that are lost when personalities become the story. Essentially, Stallman and Bacon are on opposite ends of the age-old argument about security versus convenience, but renewing this debate only with the extremes does little for the particular situation. 

The discussion that needs to take place, but is only happening intermittently is whether a balance between security and convenience can be struck, and, if so, exactly where that balance should be. 
The answers are partly a matter of philosophy, but both Stallman and Bacon do the communities they represent a dis-service by turning what should be a practical discussion into a personality conflict. Even Bacon's apology, although the right thing to do, digresses from the issue at hand by turning it into one community celebrity feuding with another. The result is titillating, but lacks all practical value.

Celebrity as emotional appeal
The exchange between Stallman and Bacon was not the only celebrity clash recently. Last month, a blog post by Matthew Garrett attacking Ted Ts'o created an even more emotionally heated debate, with the same either-or positions and derailment of the original issues. 

Such incidents emphasize what we should have guessed all along. Although free and open source software supporters often take their intellectual superiority as a given, in practice we are just as susceptible to emotional appeals as anyone else -- and no emotional appeal is more forceful than the association of a particular view with a celebrity

True, our celebrities are not be on the cover of the magazines at the check out stand of our local stores. Yet they do exist, and often they are treated as more important than their ideas -- often to the detriment of serious discussions that need to take place.

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