"Life of Brian" Played Out In Community

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The freedom to withhold freedom and the limiting of freedom only to that which is not withheld are at the heart of the dialectic of open source and free software. If you can parse that statement, you may proceed...

One of the frustrations of being a software freedom advocate is how many of the attacks that are made on me come from people who most observers would consider to be "fighting for the same side". My recent call for volunteers to work on revamping the Open Source Initiative (OSI) is a case in point. Of the public comments I've read, the majority berate me for daring to be positive about OSI rather than castigating it in favour of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) as they themselves do. (Fortunately the private e-mails are much more encouraging).

But it's not just a tension between OSI and FSF - it's a historic tension from before the dawn of digital time. It arises in every free and open source community I've ever engaged. For example, in one forum where I mentioned my membership card for the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) had arrived last week, one reply asked if I would also be joining the FSF. Software freedom arouses extreme passions among its adherents.

There are several reasons this happens so predictably. They involve the politics, practicality, psychology and psychiatry of the participants. As with any intractable argument, there's sufficient truth on every side to allow each participant to claim a monopoly on right and call the others heretics. I have spent a considerable time trying to understand the outlooks of as many factions as will talk with me, with the result of being considered a (sometimes hated) outsider by all of them!

At the heart of many of the arguments is one of the fundamental conflicts of political philosophy: the meaning of freedom. One view believes freedom involves leaving every possibility open, so that it's possible for any person to take any action - including actions which limit consequent freedoms. The other view believes freedom involves ensuring that every person is compelled to perpetuate freedom, and reserve the definition of freedom and its stewardship to a select few. Both deify and idolize freedom, but the outcomes can be fundamentally different. Paradoxically, both are right.

For all the time I have spent understanding the issues, in the final analysis advocacy for software freedom involves contrasting it with proprietary software, not with itself. It's liberty versus enslavement, open versus closed. I'm tired of hearing members of the Popular Front of GNUdea attacking the members of the GNUdean People's Front, or any of the other factional pogroms that are rehearsed globally. There are several tragic ironies that the satire of Life of Brian also fits so well to the software freedom movement in all its colour. Note especially the amount of religious language in this article...

In my own journey, I've chosen the path of celebrating what's good in both sides of the argument with the insight that when we zoom away from the detail and look on the broad scale they are in fact the same argument. I have joined the Board of OSI to help it reform and address the unquestionable issues it faces as steward of the pragmatic projection of software freedom. I have joined FSFE out of both solidarity with its mission and a desire to focus positive energy.

Will you join me? If you need suggestions, you can help me on the governance project at OSI, or you could join FSFE - who definitely need more members here in the UK - and support their positive campaigns across Europe. Both would make you part of the solution...

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