In Defense of Negativity

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.

Published by

Benjamin Mako Hill

Rebel with rather too many causes. And your host!

11 thoughts on “In Defense of Negativity”

  1. Hi Mako!

    I think it’s important that free software have space for what you call negative campaigns. What you have said is quite reasonable. I’m going to bring up some seemingly irrelevant issues, and then explain why I did that at the end of the comment.

    I think that, whether or not these “work”, many of us in the movement find them exhausting. Speaking for me in in particular, it’s exhausting to explain free software to family and friends as a movement that urges you simply to not use computers in ways that seem useful to you. The exhausting-ness is simply a practical consideration of if the campaign can work, not a remark about negative campaigns in general.

    Separately, campaigns by the FSF and others in the free software movement ought to be high-quality. Sometimes people unhappy with the campaigns seize too quickly on the “negative” aspect of them when instead there are small specific changes to the rhetoric or language that would retain the “negative” aspect but simply make the (negative) message more clear.

    These are all separate issues. I’m glad you’re bringing up the “negativity” one. I’m concerned that many commenters will think you’re defending all negative campaigns, and wanted to stem the tide of those comments at the get-go. (-:

  2. I think you identified the issue exactly when you mentioned the different types of “negative”.  Speaking out about bad policies, ethical issues, problems, and similar point seems perfectly acceptable; “negative” only becomes a problem when talking about people.

    On a different note, I also think we need to take more care in our arguments against serious problems.  Frequently, I see such arguments combined with unrelated issues or ridiculous recommendations, which blunt the effectiveness of the important point.

    For example, many of the people complaining about the “Bad Vista” campaign didn’t complain about the campaign itself so much as the FSF’s insistence on pushing gNewSense as the only alternative.  I agree entirely with the idea of a Free distribution (I run Debian main myself), but in a campaign like that it would make more sense to refer people to something that has a non-trivial userbase.  More to the point, any GNU/Linux distribution would represent an improvement on any version of Windows.

    The FSF has gotten a lot better about this lately.  For example, they talk about running Free Software on Windows or OSX, which goes a long way towards getting people using Free Software.  (I personally moved to an entirely Free system after first systematically replacing most of the programs I used on Windows with Free Software, and then switching the system out from under them.  On a related note, shouldn’t talk about switching to a Free Software operating system?)  However, I still frequently see examples of important campaigns against critical problems which shoot themselves squarely in the foot in this way.

  3. Hi Asheesh!

    Thanks for your comments! I agree that some people who complain about the “negativity” of a campaign actually object to it because they think it is a bad campaign in some other way or is likely to be ineffective. If this essay can hep make our community’s conversations about appropriate and effective advocacy campaigns a little more focused on the real issues that bother us — even if we still don’t agree with each other — I think that would be a wonderful result.

  4. This reminds me a bit of the still sort of unresolved debate over the old “considered harmful” meme in computer science. Ever since Dijkstra wrote “Go To Statement Considered Harmful” in 1968, people have been debating about whether “considered harmful” essays are themselves harmful or useful…

  5. I’m actually (well, not actually…) starting a campaign against negative campaigns, and here’s why.  My slogan is: “stop campaigning negatively.” You see, the problem is that purely oppositional campaigns aggravate the subjects of the campaign and leave the job half done.

    You have to stop telling people what not to do.  It pisses them off and makes the disagreement personal. Often they have a perfectly good reason for posting contradictory comments on a blog (to take an example out of thin air).  Why should they stop opposing negativity just because you tell me so?  Sorry, I mean “tell them so”.

    Another problem with contradicting people, or criticising their views or their choices, is that it puts them on the defensive.  It solicits knee jerk resistance when what you’re really going for as a campaigner is to solicit agreement with your own point of view.

    Thirdly, but not finally, “stop doing that” is not an effective call to action.  It leaves people without any guidance for how to take the next step after ‘stop’.  So don’t cut your message off without giving people a suggestion of what to do instead.

    Most importantly, I have to argue against opposing people who oppose opposition in politics.  You haven’t considered the idea that if they’re part of our community, they’re our audience.  It’s no use speaking them in terms they find distasteful.

    So to conclude, join the crusade against oppositional politics: “stop campaigning negatively!”


    Sincerely, for a moment, I hope I don’t come off here as too much of a smart alec, I thought this would be a fun way to make my points.  What I’m trying to say is that a purely oppositional campaign (which is what I assume you mean by ‘negative’) can always be improved by including a compelling call to action.  “I’ve got a better way to do what you want to do: give this a try” is an attractive proposition.  Secondly, I want to argue that it’s important for activists to know their audience.  If the FOSS community doesn’t respond well to negative campaigns, we should frame the message in such as way that it sounds positive.

  6. Ambjörn: Thanks for your comment!

    In my essay, I say that, “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.”

  7. Ambjörn: Sorry I didn’t get to finish that last comment!

    I think I agree with your basic comment that it leaves the job half done. But for similar reason, I think that purely “positive” campaigning also leaves the job half done.

    I think both play positive roles and balance is, as you say, a useful thing. Maybe we’re in violent agreement. :)

  8. Great blog post, Mako!

    One thing you point out is that the majority of FSF resources are dedicated to the continued production of high-quality free software – not campaigning against DRM or proprietary software. My guess is that the magnitude of this expenditure is not widely apprehended, even by FSF supporters. This lack of awareness might contribute to a perception that free software advocacy is “negative.”

    Perhaps we can start to rethink which outcomes we categorize as “successes.” For example, how many of today’s FSF members have been paying dues consistently for more than a decade? How many bugs have been squashed in the last 24 months? How many new people have taken on responsibility for a project?

    This kind of information is occasionally reported in the FSF newsletter – what if it were the subject of periodic press releases?

    High volume cheerleading (“Going strong in Kentucky!”, “More bugs squashed in the last 6 months than ever before!”, “30 more projects support Unicode!”, etc.) might powerfully balance out the perception of “negativity” among FSF campaigning.

  9. Two variants of negative.  Number one is “OMG Big Brother will control us all” and the other is “A closed proprietary system, like obsolete Betamax and AOL…haha FAIL”.

    Difference is in how the overspray audience (people not concerned about freedom) understands them.  First variant’s overspray “oh, network effect, cool, better buy that.” Second variant’s overspray, “oh, crap, another thing that’s going to make me buy all my albums/movies/books again, maybe I’ll wait.”

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