The Cant and Can't Against Free Software

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jul 31, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

I spent much of last week dodging discussions of the shootings in Aurora. Too much of the discussion was predictable -- the same pro and anti gun arguments we've all heard hundreds of time, all made in that contextless way that is so peculiarly American, as though the rest of the world didn't exist, and none of the collective angst likely to change anything. And the little I heard despite my best efforts started nagging me. Somewhere, I had heard it all before.

An immediate answer was the ramp-up for the Summer Olympics, with all the talk about excellence that's designed to pretend that the games are still about something besides nationalism and commercialism. Since the Winter Games were held two years ago in my home town of Vancouver, I was still mentally allergic to that brand of hypocrisy.

Then the real answer hit me: American arguments about guns (and health care and same sex marriage) and Olympics promotion had exactly the same tone as the arguments I hear when I try to explain to Windows users why they might have a look at free software.

All these things are examples of what nineteenth century reformers and radicals called cant -- conventional beliefs held in defiance of logic and all discussions. Usually, cant is used to dismiss alternative views, acting an explanatory principle for those who repeat it constantly so that they don't have to think outside their accepted views. Faced with an effort to discuss other opinions, those who voice cant simply repeat their basic views over and over instead of listening to what is being said or trying to argue.

Windows Cant
By definition, anything you label as cant is something with which you disagree because of its unexamined conventionality. For this reason, summarizing cant with sarcasm or parody is often difficult. However, let me try:

Very few Windows users actually like Windows. You can tell by the almost constant low-level grumbling and the anti-Microsoft jokes that are constantly circulating. These days, anybody who expresses enthusiasm for Windows or Microsoft is probably trying to sell you a copy -- and even Microsoft employees are often mute about the virtues of Windows
However, this lack of enthusiasm doesn't mean that many people are looking for alternatives. Although grumbling may be widespread, it is accompanied by a conviction that nobody can do much about the problems associated with Windows. Crashes, restarting your machine after installs, and invasions of privacy and consumer rights are all nuisances, but they are simply the price you pay for computing. Although they have probably never tried another operating system (whatever exactly that is), they can't see the point. What could possibly be different? 

In other words, Windows users tend to believe that no fundamental change is possible. Perhaps inertia enters into this belief, too.

However, what matters is that, in order  to sustain this resigned fatalism, Windows users are often quick to seize on any excuse that presents itself. OS X? Over-priced and prone to eye-candy instead of function. It's hard to find software for it, too.

Similarly, when Linux is mentioned, the reaction is disbelief. When I have mentioned that viruses are only a minor concern on Linux, several Windows users have all but called me a liar. They have never tried Linux, but they are sure that the know all about what computing is like.
The same is true of the fact that free software runs most of the Internet, including the social media sites whose free memberships they use daily. Do you think they are stupid? Their looks ask. If such things were true, then why haven't they heard of them?

Before long, the old myths come tumbling out -- and I mean "myth" not just  in the sense of a lie, but of a belief that helps someone sustain their world view. Relying on secondhand evidence, they will tell as facts established beyond all questioning that Linux and free software are hard to install, and still rely entirely on the command line. They lack support, and compatibility, too, and nothing you say will convince them. You may think that you're having a conversation, but, on some level, what they are doing is defending their continued unethusiastic use of Windows. 

You can never debunk all their statements, partly because there are so many of them, but mainly because they really don't want to hear any other view. Try, and they will just repeat what everyone knows. That is, after all, the purpose of cant -- to defend a mainstream viewpoint without requiring anyone to think.

Waiting for the opportunity

When I was a university instructor, I gradually realized that even the best teacher could only provide an opportunity to learn. No matter how much time you invested, no matter how dynamic your lessons or how long your office hours, you could actually do very little if a student wasn't already interested in learning.

The older I get, the more I realize that the same is true in most matters. Until people are willing to hear your advice or suggestions, in most cases you are only wasting your time. Very few people can be persuaded to listen against their will. At most, they will only pretend to listen.

As a free software advocate, you can have your facts at hand, ready to offer them if someone asks. But otherwise, you might as well save your efforts -- unless, of course, you want to hear the familiar cant repeated endlessly, and waste your time trying to disprove it to closed minds.


  • "cant"

    I think you are talking about genetic human nature which indeed is very hard to change. People are fiercely loyal to their group and its culture and traditions. It is an expression of what was originally tribalism. There aren't very many tribes now, but there are substitutes which we humans naturally seek out. This can take the form of nationalism, racism, religion, or even an emotional enthusiasm for a school or professional sports team. Conformity is part of our tribal nature, and it is apparently very difficult break free of this and become more objective. Whatever I and my group think and do is better than what you think and do. 100,000 years ago that attitude was a big survival advantage, and therefore became genetic.
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