The Challenge of Inclusion

Sat, 27 Apr 2024

The free software movement is deeply rooted in ethics. The movement's core is built around a social and political ideal - enabling everyone, regardless of their background or beliefs, to have control over their computing and the software that does that computing. Lately, I've been thinking about a question: How do we improve the free software movement so that we can accept everyone without regard to what they may or may not think elsewhere? Our ability to embrace a broader spectrum of participants, irrespective of their affiliations or perspectives on other matters, is crucial for the free software movement's strength and sustainability.

I've been thinking about this because, within the free software movement, I sometimes see a tendency to link the essential goal of software freedom with other social and political positions. While it's understandable that those passionate about free software might hold strong convictions on various issues, creating these links, even inadvertently, can be counterproductive. It potentially alienates individuals who might agree wholeheartedly with the importance of free software but hold differing views on other matters.

This is the free software movement, after all, not a movement about immigration policy, climate change, abortion rights, gun control, or any other type or kind of movement. When we insist that members of the free software movement adopt specific views on matters beyond the scope of universal software freedom for everyone, we create barriers and risk unintentionally creating a club with additional membership requirements unrelated to the core issue of software liberty. It establishes a litmus test, suggesting: "You must also agree with us on everything else to be a part of this." This makes the movement less welcoming and alienates potential supporters, developers, and users who otherwise align with those other goals. Such an approach undermines and contradicts the fundamental aim and ultimate goal of achieving universal software freedom. In striving for a world where everyone has the tools of freedom, we must be mindful that "everyone" is an inherently diverse group.

Separating the Core Mission from Other Beliefs

It's important to acknowledge that people supporting the right to free software will inevitably hold diverse views on other social, economic, political, and other issues. These beliefs are their own; and those people deserve software freedom regardless of what those other views are, and regardless of whatever our views are. Expecting conformity on unrelated topics stifles the potential for a robust and united movement. We must remain focused on the singular goal of enabling software freedom for everyone.

Welcoming All, Regardless of Differences

The core principle of software freedom is universality. Software freedom is for everyone. To achieve this freedom for everyone, not just those who think like us, we must create space for individuals who may hold vastly different views on issues outside of software. The free software movement has never aimed to achieve universal agreement on every political or social issue, from immigration policy to gun control. There are better times and places to fight those battles. This doesn't mean ignoring harm or compromising our values. Instead, it means recognizing that focusing on our shared goal of software freedom gives us a broad, inclusive movement, which is ultimately a stronger one. Our singular focus on software freedom allows us to collaborate with a diverse range of people, building a powerful force for positive change. A "big tent" approach makes us stronger, not weaker and enhances our chances of achieving the long-term vision of universal software freedom.

Building Bridges, Not Walls

How can we move towards greater inclusivity within the free software movement so that individuals are welcome regardless of their positions on unrelated topics? Here are some critical points for reflection:

  • Focus on Shared Principles: Let's emphasize the core tenets of the free software movement: Ethics, freedom, and control. These ideas hold immense transformative potential and attract people from all walks of life. Avoid conflating this message with other social or political causes, no matter how worthy those may be.
  • Promote Respectful Dialog: Encourage civil discourse and open communication, even when faced with disagreements. Encourage empathy and a willingness to find common ground. We don't always have to agree, but we must respect the right of others to have their opinions and think differently than we do. Building bridges of understanding, not barriers of judgment, is critical.
  • Emphasize cooperation, not condemnation: When someone expresses problematic views, remember that our common ground is the singular goal of achieving universal software freedom - for everyone in the world, regardless of background or belief. Our focus here is on cooperation. The goal is not to change minds or punish people for their views on other topics outside of that. We can work together with anyone who shares our passion for software freedom, even if we disagree on other matters.
  • Lead by Example: The best way to shape an inclusive movement is for the leaders of that movement to embody that inclusiveness. Foster a space where everyone is welcome, irrespective of beliefs about topics outside software. Model behavior that exemplifies the inclusivity we aim to achieve and demonstrate openness to working with people with whom you might disagree on non-software issues.

Strength in Unity and Focus

The free software movement represents an ideal desperately needed in the modern world - the right for every individual to control the software that often runs their life. It's a goal that should resonate across political divides and cultural differences. The free software movement's power lies in its potential to unite people for a common good. By focusing on shared principles, promoting respectful dialog, and emphasizing cooperation, not condemnation, we can build a genuinely welcoming and effective movement for everyone. Remember, a more inclusive movement is ultimately more robust and better positioned to impact and achieve lasting change positively. By detaching expectations of ideological conformity on extraneous matters, we open the doors to broader participation. Let's welcome, work with, and even learn from those we might traditionally disagree with. The goal of universal software freedom demands that we do.