30/11/2008

On idealists and idealism

Let me say up front: I'm an idealist, and I'm proud of it. It's a central part of my identity, and I'd be totally lost without it. Idealism, to me, is believing in doing something because you should, because it's right, not because it's expedient or pragmatic. Sure, practical concerns do affect our daily lives—for example, we can't spend more money than we have—but where we have a choice in what we do, idealism means that we do what's right for everyone around us, for the world around us, for the bigger picture.

It's nice to serve ourselves, and we certainly shouldn't help others at the total expense of our wellbeing, but the opposite is (in my idealist eyes) far worse. In that picture, everyone is just out to serve themselves, with no regard for others; they'd slay their own parents if it meant they'd get their inheritance a few years sooner, for example, or their spouse so they can fraudulently cash in on their life insurance.

The latter is not a world I want to live in. I've already seen too much evil in my years on this earth, and it's burdened me with a fair sense of cynicism. However, I refuse to let that cause me to allow the world to get any worse. No matter how much of a dead end we feel we live in, we must strive to make things better, in whatever way we can. No amount is too little, as long as we can honestly say we did our best.

It is for that reason that I have voted (since I was 18), and continue to vote, for the Green Party, that I support Richard Stallman and Dennis Kucinich, and why I'm married to The Ferret, who, though not as high-profile as the people I just named, is a shining example of how idealists should live their lives.

It is also the reason why I speak up for causes I care about. One of the things I care about is that companies should get their priorities straight, which is to serve customers first, and not just as a means to profit. In fact, I personally believe that running a business just to profit (with other reasons being subservient to that) is dubious; it says you've sold your soul to money. Profit should be a means to other (hopefully more ethical) ends, and not the end to which other considerations are merely means. The profit-as-end companies are those that will gladly fire their most talented staff if it were expedient for them to do so, such as if said people started whistle-blowing. Clearly, that sort of company would be a poor place to work for if you value social justice.


Recently I had a run-in with some misguided people who have their priorities the wrong way around. One, I believe, even accused me of “shit-stirring”. (Thankfully, since they're posting anonymously, they can't go and redact their comment, and I certainly have no inclination to remove evidence of people's, umm, ‘logical slip-ups’.) I believe, in that poster's eyes, any kind of ‘heretical’ ideas (such as the Earth being round, or that evolution created the earth's many varied lifeforms, to name two historical examples) are shit-stirring. Well, in that case, I'm glad to be among that crowd.

Shit-stirring is how the world progresses! How on earth do you expect our society to give women the right to vote, to abolish segregation, to legalise abortion and (in New Zealand) prostitution—and hopefully soon, gay marriage and cannabis—if there weren't people who spoke up about it?! If people don't put their foot down on things they care about, how does this world improve? By sitting on our arses and excusing companies' and governments' misbehaviour? Surely you jest!

Also, just because a company ‘invented’ a technology does not give them the (ethical) right to piss on others, whether others be their customers, competitors, or anyone else. Even if the law doesn't require it, we all owe it to the society and world around us to be better than self-serving. Much, much better.

But since we're talking about innovation, who do you think invented Firefox, or BitTorrent, or other such great technological wonders of the Internet age? Is it a certain company in Cupertino? Bzzzt! The world does not revolve around them, contrary to the apparent opinion of some of my respondents.

As we all know, they're inventions of some of the best free software hackers in this world. Likewise with many other pieces of free software that's in daily use, all around the world, created by people who believe, one way or another, that giving their users freedom is the right thing to do. Off the top of my head, I can name: Emacs, Apache, TeX (and LaTeX), PHP, Ruby (and Rails), Java (although it's had a funny kind of history, in the free software world), and Mozilla (the progenitor of Firefox). These are all original works, not clones of proprietary software.

Luckily for proprietary software supporters (and social justice in general), free software does not allow discrimination against certain groups of users, and they can all benefit from these works. I wish I could say the same of non-free software.

So, am I shit-stirring enough yet? Glad to be of service!

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