english español       This article was published on 8/23/2000 as an osOpinion column.

Authored by: Byron Sonne

A vs. B, or Why You Should Both Shut Up

It seems that I can not go anywhere without bumping into a flamefest. There is the ever present *BSD vs. Linux row, but this week it seems to be Gnome vs. KDE. It might as well be Coke vs. Pepsi or Ford vs. Dodge, for all I care.

I just want you to shut up.

I will tell you why, but let me first come clean. I am guilty of this behaviour just like the majority of people; this article is directed towards myself as much as it is towards you, the reader.

It is a very human behaviour to take sides and to engage in conflict. By doing so we are immersing ourselves in primal powers that are easily capable of overwhelming our common sense and individuality. There is no way to avoid the negative aspects for they stem from the very same place as the positive motivations that drive us forward as a species. They are not irreconcilable; they are in fact complementary. But enough of this melodramatic yin-yang blabber, on to something practical.

What many other people and I find disconcerting is the ease by which most of us become overwhelmed. Rather than standing fast and maintaining grace in the face of insult or honest criticism, we respond with anger and insults. This is not a new phenomenon, it has existed throughout time and crosses all cultural boundaries. There is no excuse for it anymore; between us all there is enough history for us to learn from our mistakes and to change. We all know that it is unwise to speak in anger, and better to cool down before issuing a response.

The problem manifests itself frequently and furiously nowadays. Even if there is no real drama, the media creates it. If one visits zdnet.com, one can see a prime example of this: an article with the heading "War brewing between Gnome, KDE". One could dismiss this as shoddy journalism, but that does not deny the fact that it exists for a reason. It exists because people love it. We can see an exquisite example of this in the recent writings of Fred Moody. They are obviously written to create outrage; Mr. Moody is a cunning enough journalist that he knows how to attract people. The method is simple; find a sore spot and poke at it. Eventually you will get a response, though it will probably be a negative one. The nature of the response does not matter as long as it attracts attention. We become vultures circling the dead carcass of common sense and civility, putting on a show for all to see. It is not the fault of Mr. Moody, it is solely and truly our own fault for responding poorly.

Like most people, I was taught from a young age that "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything". Most people are smart enough to realize that a rigid interpretation of this advice is not appropriate; it is the spirit that is important. Once you understand the spirit of these words, then you realize that it is pointless to engage in fights that are not based on logic and are not conducted with restraint and civility. These fights do not exist to offer solutions; they are the journalistic equivalent of the "My dad can beat up your dad" argument. They end when one side or the audience tires, not when a useful resolution has been reached.

These fights are a dangerous distraction. Do you think that up in Redmond people sit around all day yelling at each other? I doubt they are having pointless debates like "FoxPro rules, Access sucks" or "95 is for losers, real men use NT". What I am sure of is that the majority of them are focused on common goals. They are not wasting time arguing, but we are. While BSD users are saying "Linux ripped off BSD" and Linux users are saying "BSD is full of code purist nazis", Microsoft is coding, coding, coding. While Gnome users are saying "KDE sucks because of QT" and KDE users are saying "Gnome is slow, overly political and stilted", Microsoft is coding some more.

Of course, some Unix "evolutionary theorist" will raise the valid point that this is part of a healthy process. The best, strongest argument will win out, and become a defacto standard. The strength of our community is that we can choose. This is true and I agree wholeheartedly.

But I only agree insofar as the arguments are clear, logical and conducted in a civil environment. Otherwise, faults creep in. If I was an evil person that wished the downfall of any particular "Free Software" or "Open Source" community concern, I know exactly where I would start. I would try to split the ranks. I would whisper "QT has a restrictive license" in a Gnome evangelist's ear, "Gnome is unstable" to a KDE zealot, "Linux users are just hopping on the bandwagon" to BSD users, and "BSD is too hard and is useless" to Linux folk. Then I would tell each of them that the other was attacking them. I would contribute rudely written columns to opinion sites attacking various technologies without backing up my facts. I would post inflammatory comments on Slashdot.

I have made a list of a few simple guidelines that if followed, can help combat this madness. I urge everyone to adopt them and practice them, and to encourage others to do so as well.

  1. I will treat everyone with respect and politeness, regardless of how they behave towards me. If I cannot do this, I will not engage in communications.

  2. I will be fair and honest, and consider both sides. If I cannot keep an open mind, then I will not participate in the discussion.

  3. I will resist being drawn into a fight. If I find myself in a fight, I will make a graceful, respectful exit.

  4. I will keep my cool and maintain logic at all times. If I cannot, I will voluntarily remove myself from participation.

  5. I will not make claims without having facts to back them up. I will not make arguments without displaying my reasoning procedure.

  6. I will not talk just to hear the sound of my own voice.

  7. If I make a criticism or point out a weakness, it will be followed immediately by a well thought out suggestion on how to fix or improve it.

Let's stop wasting time and focus on what really matters. Everybody complains that they cannot make a difference, but this is one opportunity where you can.


Authors background:

Byron Sonne lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and unhappily maintains NT systems for a living, but lives and breathes UNIX when he is not working. He is currently looking for full time UNIX opportunities. He enjoys mountain biking (when his foot is not broken) and wishes that BSD and Linux people would learn to shut up and get along.