Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Linux Community: No Rational Discourse Allowed?

by Katherine Noyes

As a child of two academic parents and with a fairly significant academic background myself, I was brought up to believe that there are no stupid questions.

Instead, I was nurtured by the belief that questions are a good thing, helping as they do to clarify and refine the common understanding. If a question is a misguided one, I was trained to believe, the asker would quickly be given to understand what it was he or she had initially failed to understand. If, alternatively, it challenged current widespread belief, a rational discourse would follow whereby the idea (NOT the person who expressed it, mind you) was examined and evaluated as a possible motivation for refining current beliefs.

What I am continually amazed to find in much of the Linux community, however – at least here on Google+ -- is an atmosphere of personal venom and attacks. (Image credit: holytaco.com)

A Poisonous Atmosphere

Case in point: The site Linux Advocates.

I co-founded this site with Dietrich Schmitz earlier this year, motivated by the belief that there were woefully few places in which Linux advocates (which we both are) could discuss the state of Linux rationally and critically – in which we're not bound by the agendas of advertisers or others with irrevocably vested interests.

Neither Dietrich nor I has a vested interest here. We both love and use Linux, but we're not afraid to look at it critically or to ask tough questions, much the way academics do every day in their own respective communities. It is through objective and clear-eyed critical thinking, after all, that intellectual progress is made.

It seems, however, that those with interests in this community can't abide to have objective questions asked. As the sole Linux-focused writer at PCWorld, I am nothing if not well-acquainted with the many barbs, jibes and personal attacks that are typically levied by those with nothing more than hurt pride to defend them. Fans of Windows and Macs alike have long vented much frustration through comments on my stories.

What I've seen here on Linux Advocates, however, has blown all that out of the water.

Gunned Down by the Firehose

A second case in point: After acting as one of Fuduntu's biggest cheerleaders (as have I, incidentally), Dietrich was nothing short of torched with a firehose for daring to question the wisdom of the project team's goals following its decision to shut down the growing distro.

Just to reiterate: In most of the rational world, asking questions is not a bad thing. At worst, it gets you a rebuke for being misguided or silly.

Here in the Linux community, however, it gets you the firehose. Instead of responding rationally to Dietrich's concerns and comments, those involved either directly or peripherally have let loose with all they've got, clearly aiming to drive him out of the Linux community altogether.

Is Progress Possible?

Dietrich has also been sharply criticized for shutting down comments or commentators on the site, even when they involved personal attacks and other completely irrational responses.

To me, this is a very bizarre community indeed, and I think it casts considerable doubt on the community's ability to make any progress beyond the scattered conglomeration of sub-communities it currently comprises. If it's not possible to ask rational questions or to question the status quo – however threatening that may be to some – how can progress ever be made?

I know I can say with complete certainty that both Dietrich and I are rooting for Linux with our full hearts. Neither one of us uses Windows or Mac, and we couldn't imagine ever doing so. But when the community shoots us down simply for asking high-level questions, it's really hard to keep feeling committed.

Has this just been a fluke occurrence? Is there really no room for rational discourse in the Linux community? I await comments from the community itself.

-- Katherine

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