I have often heard criticism of "negative campaigning" in the free software movement. "Negative" campaigns speak out against proprietary software as opposed to "positive" campaigns which instead speak of the benefits of software freedom. This essays unpacks some of the arguments against negativity and makes the argument that negative campaigns, in some forms, can play an critical and important role in free software advocacy.
In Defense of Negativity
This essay is reposted from my blog.
I often hear criticism of "negative campaigning" in the free software movement. For example, in reply to a blog post I once wrote about an FSF campaign, several people argued against, "negative campaigning of any sort, in any realm." Drawing an analogy to political smear campaigns, some members of the free software community have taken the position that negative campaigning in general is not useful and that negativity has no place in our advocacy.
First, it is important to be clear on what we mean by a negative campaigns. I believe that there is a fundamental difference between speaking out against policies or actions and smear campaigns that employ untrue claims, ad hominem attacks, and that attempt to avoid a real conversation about issues. I will categorically condemn the latter form of smear campaigning in campaigns for software freedom or for anything else.
That said, negativity directed at negativity has had a positive effect in many social movements. I have supported and participated in "negative" campaigns against proprietary software, software patents, DRM, centralized network services, and the firms behind these practices. I've done so because I believe that if one is taking an ethical position, it is justified, and often necessary, to not only speak about the benefits of freedom but against acts of dispossession and disenfranchisement.
In some of the most effective social movements, unambiguously negative messages have been central. Should a campaign for abolishing child labor talk only about how valuable adult workers are to their employers or how happy kids are when they don't work? Should a campaign trying to abolish land mines talk only about the benefits of bomb-free fields and intact lower limbs? Should a free speech organization only speak out about the social welfare brought by a free press and never against acts of censorship? These may seem like outlandish comparisons but you can find people writing, only a couple centuries ago, about how slavery should be abolished by arguing in favor of the benefits of paid labor. Even if the economic arguments in favor of paid work are strong, these arguments seems irrelevant and offensive today. Whether slavery is more or less efficient is a moot point. Society has rejected it because it is wrong.
We have made important strides toward eliminating injustices like child labor and slavery because activists waged decidedly negative campaigns against them and convinced others to join in opposition. In doing so, activists declared the status quo unconscionable and created an ethical responsibility to find alternatives and to redefine what was "realistic." While I will not suggest that the movement for software freedom is comparable in ethical weight to these other causes, I know that the free software mission is similar in kind.
Of course, if one does not think that user control over technology is an ethical issue but is instead merely a matter of choice, one will probably oppose negative campaigns. It is also possible that a particular negative campaign is tactically unwise in that it is unlikely to reach a large audience, unlikely to change people's minds, or be difficult to carry out successfully. But such campaigns are a bad idea because they are ineffective, not because they are negative. Additionally, a movement that is purely negative and offers no reasonable alternative to the stated ill may also be unlikely to succeed. This is why, for example, I believe it is good that the FSF uses the large majority of its resources in the "positive" role of supporting free software.
For those that do treat technological empowerment as an ethical ideal, it is both justified and essential to condemn the systematic disempowerment of others through non-free software just as we celebrate the benefits of software freedom. "Negative" campaigns against proprietary software, software patents, and DRM in music have already led our community to important -- if incomplete -- victories. The desire to right wrongs has been a critical part of our movement's success and of many others'. We would be wise not to give it up.