Richard Stallman and the Connotations of Language

Monday Nov 26th 2007 by Bruce Byfield
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Stallman's essay about the use – and misuse – of terminology illustrates an undeniable truth: that it's impossible to use language in a neutral way. The decisions we make about what to call something necessarily reflects our partisan positions.

Anyone looking for a summary of the free software movement's concerns needs only to look at Richard M. Stallman's essay "Some Confusing or Loaded Words and Phrases that are Worth Avoiding." Behind the modest title, the essay lists all the classic free software concerns, ranging from insisting on the term "GNU/Linux" for the operating system usually called Linux to efforts to emphasize the dangers of so-called Digital Rights Management and Trusted Computing.

Even more importantly, though the essay never refers to the term, what unites most of its list is a concern with framing -- the effort to define the terms of a debate to favor one side over the other. As much as Stallman's analysis of each term, this underlying concern makes the essay an education in the structure of the debates to which he refers.

Those hostile to the free software movement -- which includes many who call themselves open source supporters -- might be tempted to dismiss Stallman's essay as a piece of political correctness left over from the Nineties. Alternatively, the irreverent might be tempted to make a comparison with the aging Hugh Hefner dictating his "playboy philosophy." But Stallman is far more relevant than Hefner ever could be, and has serious intellectual chops besides -- and a MacArthur Fellows grant to prove it.

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Moreover, few activists in any field match Stallman's awareness of the connotations of language. The problem with political correctness was not its premise that the language we use affects our thinking -- that's a given, as any first year psychology student who's stumbled across the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis understands -- but that this insight was seen as end in itself (and sometimes alienates even potential allies). In earlier days, Stallman himself was often accused of exactly these shortcomings. Yet, at his best, as in this essay, Stallman offers a reinterpretation of many words and phrases that reveal the implications that often pass unnoticed.

Framing is everywhere

Framing is a term for the search for a description that places the best possible connotations on a particular viewpoint. Although high school imbued us with the idea that language is value-free, nothing is innately nefarious about framing except when it misleads -- we all try to express our viewpoints in the most favorable light. Especially when we want to persuade.

When one side in abortion debates refers to itself as "pro-choice," they are trying to make the issue a matter of civil rights. Equally, when their opponents describe themselves as "pro-life," they are trying to promote a set of beliefs that holds that sentience begins at conception. In much the same way, American politicians who talk about withdrawal from Iraq talk in terms of the human cost among soldiers, while their opponents talk in terms of global strategy and the United States' international reputation. Often -- especially in extreme cases like these ones -- neutrality in language is not a choice. Instead, the only option is which bias you support in the words you select.

Setting frames

What is interesting about Stallman's essay (apart, of course, from its cause) is the degree to which framing is its unspoken topic. In a few cases, such as "BSD-style license," Stallman is merely urging a clearer use of language; the original BSD license is incompatible with the GNU General Public License, but the revised BSD license is not, so not specifying which you are referring to is misleading. Similarly, using "commercial" to refer non-free software is misleading, because some commercial software is released under a free license these days.

However, most of the time, he either tries to frame an issue in terms that the free software would find acceptable, or else debunks framing that is either hostile to free software or denies its existence.

Continued: Escaping frames

At least two of the frames that Stallman sets in the essay will be familiar to many. The first is that a distinction should be made between "hacker" -- one who is an enthusiastic tinkerer -- and "cracker" -- one who breaks into computer systems illegally.

The second is the suggestion that Linux should be called "GNU/Linux" to acknowledge Free Software Foundation's GNU project's contributions to the operating system. But, even more so than the hacker/cracker distinction, this is an old lecture that most readers will have long ago made up their minds either to accept or reject.

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More interesting are Stallman's extensions of this old argument. For instance, he suggests that a LAMP stack -- a solution that involves the use of Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP -- should be abbreviated as "GLAMP." Similarly, he urges readers not to use "closed" as a synonym for "proprietary," arguing that it is an antonym for "open source" and excludes any mention of the related but philosophically distinct free software. "Open" as a description for free software is decried in the same way. What is interesting here is less Stallman's long-familiar stance than the way he demonstrates how thoroughly particular frames -- here, the use of Linux and referring to the entire movement as open source -- are not confined to a single term, but proliferate into other ones.

At other times, Stallman sets his own frame while debunking existing ones. Digital Rights Management, a term that refers to lockdown technologies, he suggests, should be called instead "Digital Restrictions Management," "Digital Restrictions Malware" or "handcuffware." In much the same way, he suggests that Trusted Computing, which allows third-parties access to a computer system, should be called "treacherous computing" and "intellectual property" should be divided into individual issues, such as copyright, patents, and trademarks to avoid conflating very different issues. In such instances, Stallman is analyzing phrases that are more or less intentionally misleading -- and his sometimes comic suggestions show the power of humor in debunking such frames.

Escaping frames

However, most of the essay is devoting to analyses intended to help readers from falling into non-free software ways of thinking. He analyzes several terms, ranging from "market," "vendor" and "software industry," to referring only to a computer with Windows installed as a "PC" as excluding all reference to free software. And he is quite right, of course: the free software movement is not about markets or vendors, and, while not innately hostile to business, is not primarily an industry, either. These are everyday terms, yet, after reading Stallman's common sense comments, you may very well realize that they are not as value free as you assumed.

Perhaps the high points of the essay are Stallman's comments about terms related to file-sharing and copyright. Once he points out the facts, it seems obvious that referring to creative works as content implies that they "are an interchangeable commodity whose purpose is to fill a box and make money," or that referring to artists as "creators" is an effort "by publishers to elevate the authors' moral stature above that of ordinary people, to justify increased copyright power that the publishers can exercise in the name of the authors."

Even more interesting is Stallman's comment on the terms used to refer to illegal file-sharing. Even if a download is illegal or immoral, it is ridiculous – once Stallman makes you think of it – to equate that act as "ethically equivalent to attacking ships on the high seas, kidnapping and murdering the people on them."

In the same vein, here are Stallman's comments in full on describing copyright infringement as "theft":

Copyright apologists often use words like "stolen" and "theft" to describe copyright infringement. At the same time, they ask us to treat the legal system as an authority on ethics: if copying is forbidden, it must be wrong.
So it is pertinent to mention that the legal system – at least in the US – rejects the idea that copyright infringement is theft. Copyright apologists are making an appeal to authority and misrepresenting what authority says.
The idea that laws decide what is right or wrong is mistaken in general. Laws are, at their best, an attempt to achieve justice; to say that laws define justice or ethical conduct is turning things upside down.
Continued: One point Stallman omits

Providing Clarity

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Above everything else, what Stallman provides in "Some Confusing or Loaded Words and Phrases that are Worth Avoiding" is clarity. You may not agree with the frames that he attempts to create, but, after reading the essay, you are not left in doubt about what he is doing and why. Equally, in debunking other people's frames, Stallman shows exactly how overloaded with values they are. Either way, the result can only be greater clarity of thought.

The one major point that Stallman omits is how practical the use of alternatives might be. You may want to avoid the term "intellectual property" as a sloppy conflation of ideas, but, in my experience, when talking about these ideas to a lawyer, using the term is practically unavoidable. In fact, I seem to recall even Eben Moglen, Stallman's chief collaborator on the last two versions of the GNU General Public License, referring to intellectual property – although he did sound embarrassed.

Moreover, in some cases, using alternatives risks being misunderstood. From one perspective, "treacherous computing" is more accurate than "trusted computing," and "digital restrictions management" more accurate than "digital rights management." Yet, if you use these alternatives, you risk being not misunderstood and appearing ignorant or juvenile as well. That's why I usually refer to "so-called digital rights management" rather than use any of Stallman's suggestions -- this way, I use the familiar term while making clear my skepticism about its accuracy.

Such issues aside, what Stallman's essay offers is clarity of thought on a number of issues that most of us never stop to consider. After reading it, even if you continue to use the terms he denigrates, you can hardly help but be aware of the positions you are endorsing with your choices. These are not new lessons, but, by bringing them to free software and related topics, Stallman makes a point that can never be made too many times.

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