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Archive for August 30th, 2008

When I was a boy, I imagined that one day I might become so skilled as a writer that I would silence all the critics. I was very young, and, of course naive. But I can’t help remembering that dream now that I am a writer and have made some permanent enemies as a result of my modest success.

Even now, I’m close enough to the dreaming boy whom I once was that the word “enemy” sounds melodramatic, even paranoid. Yet what other word can I apply to people who imagine that I am always writing about them, and who spend an inordinate amount of time not only bad-mouthing me, but writing abusive posts and emails to repudiate my opinions? “Critic” or “detractor” might do, but neither word suggests the fury or the personal rancor of these people. So I suppose “enemy” will have to do.

Still, no matter what word I use, the idea of having enemies bemuses me. I seem to be such a poor hater that I have trouble imagining dislike in others. And, to be honest, when I first became aware of the fact, I was taken by surprise. Until about a year ago, I had had a gentle reception as a journalist. Very little of the attacks that other free software journalists have endured had come my way, and never from steady, identifiable sources. So I hardly knew how to react to the situation.

However, over the last six months, I’ve developed a habit of ignoring them. I won’t mention them by name in public, nor respond to their comments. In fact, I very rarely read anything they write, regardless of whether it’s about me or not; with all the intelligent and informative material about free software on the web, why should I waste my time? Most of what I hear about them comes in passing second hand references, or from reading a link on a portal site.

Yet, almost despite myself, I can’t help learning a little about my enemies. For example, I can’t help noticing that none of them seem to be contributors to any free software projects. Moreover, the other people whom they attack (my enemies being very far from discriminating) are among the leaders of the community, and hard workers as well, even if I often don’t share their opinions or think their energies misplaced. So, while I would rather not be among those my enemies focus upon, I suppose their attention is a wry compliment to my articles. After all, if I was completely unsuccessful in expressing myself or providing unusual or thoughtful arguments, then they probably wouldn’t bother with me.

But, even more importantly, when I do come across the writing of my enemies – regardless of whether it’s about me or some other straw man of the day – I’m starting to find that they help define me in a negative way. Just as, in the 1970s being on Richard Nixon’s enemy list was a sign that you were an effective social activist, so being a target of these kinds of people helps me to define the sort of person and writer that I want to be – in essence, everything that is the opposite of them.

For starters, I have no wish for prolonged flame wars. I might toss off an angry reply, or even a second one, but, after that, I can’t sustain the emotion. There are so many more interesting ways to spend my time that I quickly lose interest.

For another, while most of my writing about free software is advocacy journalism in the sense that, by choosing my specialty, I am implying that the subject is worthy of attention, I have no interest in attack journalism (I suppose that comes from getting enough sleep and not being wired on coffee all the time). I can disagree with a person or a corporate policy very well without any need to denounce explicitly. In the end, I would much rather stand for something than against something.

Anyway, if I present the facts accurately enough, I don’t need to condemn – if someone or something is unpleasant, the fact will come through without me belaboring the point.

Even more importantly, while I wince at typos and factual errors, taking them as proof of my own carelessness, I am far more concerned about logical errors. I don’t believe that, just because you find a tenuous connection to Microsoft that you have proved a conspiracy, or that simply because one event follows another that the first caused the second. I try very hard to keep an open mind as I research a story, which is why I usually can’t say the perspective I am taking until shortly before I start to write. I believe that quotes and other evidence needs to be taken in context, not jammed anywhichway into my existing beliefs as if I were some remote descendant of Procrustes. You don’t arrive at the truth by over-simplification or jumping to conclusions; you get there by acknowledging as much of the complexity as you possibly can.

But perhaps the biggest difference between my enemies and me is that I don’t think that my writing is all about me. When I sit down to write, my goal is cover the topic thoroughly, and support any opinions I state so that they are plausible to a fair-minded person. However, I rarely write to justify myself when I’m reporting on free software, nor do I expect everyone to agree with me. In fact, those who disagree with me often force me into a more nuanced and therefore more accurate view of the subject. In the end, my goal is to send off a finished article with what Balzac called “clean hands and composure” — by which I mean the knowledge that, given my material and time restraints, I have done the best job of expressing my point that I could.

Sometimes, I wish my enemies would find another target and leave me alone. Increasingly, though, I find myself accepting the fact that they are not going away in a hurry, even thinking that they are useful to me. For all the annoyance they provoke, they are examples of the sort of person and writer that I do not wish to be. So long as I act in the exact opposite way that they do, I can continue to be a person with whom I can live.

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