Richard Stallman and the Connotations of Language

Stallman's essay about the use – and misuse – of terminology illustrates an undeniable truth: that it's impossible to use language in a neutral way. The decisions we make about what to call something necessarily reflects our partisan positions.
Posted November 26, 2007

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

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Anyone looking for a summary of the free software movement's concerns needs only to look at Richard M. Stallman's essay "Some Confusing or Loaded Words and Phrases that are Worth Avoiding." Behind the modest title, the essay lists all the classic free software concerns, ranging from insisting on the term "GNU/Linux" for the operating system usually called Linux to efforts to emphasize the dangers of so-called Digital Rights Management and Trusted Computing.

Even more importantly, though the essay never refers to the term, what unites most of its list is a concern with framing -- the effort to define the terms of a debate to favor one side over the other. As much as Stallman's analysis of each term, this underlying concern makes the essay an education in the structure of the debates to which he refers.

Those hostile to the free software movement -- which includes many who call themselves open source supporters -- might be tempted to dismiss Stallman's essay as a piece of political correctness left over from the Nineties. Alternatively, the irreverent might be tempted to make a comparison with the aging Hugh Hefner dictating his "playboy philosophy." But Stallman is far more relevant than Hefner ever could be, and has serious intellectual chops besides -- and a MacArthur Fellows grant to prove it.

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Moreover, few activists in any field match Stallman's awareness of the connotations of language. The problem with political correctness was not its premise that the language we use affects our thinking -- that's a given, as any first year psychology student who's stumbled across the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis understands -- but that this insight was seen as end in itself (and sometimes alienates even potential allies). In earlier days, Stallman himself was often accused of exactly these shortcomings. Yet, at his best, as in this essay, Stallman offers a reinterpretation of many words and phrases that reveal the implications that often pass unnoticed.

Framing is everywhere

Framing is a term for the search for a description that places the best possible connotations on a particular viewpoint. Although high school imbued us with the idea that language is value-free, nothing is innately nefarious about framing except when it misleads -- we all try to express our viewpoints in the most favorable light. Especially when we want to persuade.

When one side in abortion debates refers to itself as "pro-choice," they are trying to make the issue a matter of civil rights. Equally, when their opponents describe themselves as "pro-life," they are trying to promote a set of beliefs that holds that sentience begins at conception. In much the same way, American politicians who talk about withdrawal from Iraq talk in terms of the human cost among soldiers, while their opponents talk in terms of global strategy and the United States' international reputation. Often -- especially in extreme cases like these ones -- neutrality in language is not a choice. Instead, the only option is which bias you support in the words you select.

Setting frames

What is interesting about Stallman's essay (apart, of course, from its cause) is the degree to which framing is its unspoken topic. In a few cases, such as "BSD-style license," Stallman is merely urging a clearer use of language; the original BSD license is incompatible with the GNU General Public License, but the revised BSD license is not, so not specifying which you are referring to is misleading. Similarly, using "commercial" to refer non-free software is misleading, because some commercial software is released under a free license these days.

However, most of the time, he either tries to frame an issue in terms that the free software would find acceptable, or else debunks framing that is either hostile to free software or denies its existence.

Continued: Escaping frames

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