Just Asking

Sometimes people just ask for things. You can grant them or deny them. There is no punishment if you deny them, besides your knowledge that you have denied someone something they asked for. And no reward if you grant them, besides your knowledge that you have granted something someone wanted, and their thanks.

More often people ask for things as a polite way of telling you to do something, with consequences if you refuse. “No smoking please” is not just asking. They’ll kick you out if you smoke. Maybe they’ll call the cops.

Because of these “loaded requests” people sometimes react very strongly to actual “just asking” requests. Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and the GNU project, much of which is customarily bundled with the Linux kernel, asks you to call the resulting system GNU/Linux, not Linux. He also asks you to stop using proprietary software, and to release any software you write under a Free Software license. He won’t do anything to you if you don’t, except perhaps refuse to do things he is under no obligation to anyway, like speak at your club meeting. He just asks you to do these things because he thinks they are the right thing to do.

People get very, very bent out of shape at him for asking to do these things. As if he’s done something terrible by asking people to do things he thinks they should do. I think that’s because actual requests, without an implied threat, are so rare these days that people react to them as if they did carry an implied threat. As if Stallman were going to go kick their butts if they refused to call it GNU/Linux.

Here’s a similar request: Kasper asks that you not use the Typo3 CMS system for what he would consider “anti-Christian” purposes. He won’t stop you if you do. It’s still standard GPL-licensed software, free for anyone to use. He’s just asking you not to use it in certain ways, and he’s even asking you to use your own judgment as to whether you’re using it in the ways he wouldn’t want. This was thought remarkable enough that it was blogged at Metafilter and generated a lot of commentary, where a lot of people seemed to have a hard time understanding the difference between “just asking” and “requiring by license terms potentially enforceable by lawsuit.” One person even specifically described such a specifically unenforceable and unenforced request as “coercive.” That’s like, the opposite of what “coercive” actually means. Another described him as “attempting to control what I do” and went on to say “Yeah, it’s just request. But it’s narrow minded request and this sort of crap from any religion shouldn’t be tolerated.” These reactions didn’t all seem to reflect failure to notice the distinction between asking someone to do something and forcing them to do it; they often seemed to reflect a belief that asking someone to do something wasforcing them to do it.

There’s a very strange discomfort with “just asking.” People react as if they’ve been forced, and feel as if they’ve been forced, even if they specifically have not.

This fascinates me.

A final quote — this is one of the most interesting quotes from Richard Stallman ever. I feel it explains a lot.

JA: Are you optimistic about this?

Richard Stallman: I don’t know. I am a pessimist by nature. Many people can only keep on fighting when they expect to win. I’m not like that, I always expect to lose. I fight anyway, and sometimes I win.

From the Kerneltrap interview.

1 thought on “Just Asking”

  1. I think one thing about Stallman is that his reputation precedes him in many cases. I’m sure he doesn’t regret anything he’s done or said, but he would have been well-served to adhere to the ‘attract more flies with honey’ adage many times.

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