I watched a lecture by Richard Stallman this morning and it was brilliant, and then I watched another by him and it was awful. The difference was that in the first one he was summarizing the lessons of his work and life and in the second one he set himself up as an example.
The problem with self-righteousness is related to another problem that I understand but have not yet given it a term. I'm usually pretty good at doing so, but this particular phenomenon escapes my ontology. It will take a minute to explain.
We all know that hackers can own our computers. But they don't. Why? Because we're not worth it. And even if they steal 10 million credit cards, it's not really a profitable business. Why? because the average Joe doesn't have that much credit. We are beneath the radar. It's safe to be ignorant because ignorant people aren't particularly dangerous. That's the phenomenon. Let me describe it one more way. If you are the ordinary Joe and you wear jeans and a t-shirt it's not a scandal, but it would be if you were a UN diplomat.
Let's call it, for the time being, the Class Boundary Scrutiny Problem.
Stallman, in his odious lecture was explaining how Apple Computer was closed and proprietary and for that reason he would not even accept an iPad as a gift. He did a little browbeating of a person who brought up the question about a jailbroken iPhone, the questioner was being a little obsequious and Stallman was being a little self-righteous.
When you are a tenured professor, you have the luxury of time to develop the skill of not using many cultural idioms. You can speak directly from knowledge without the necessity for idioms. But for most people in the world, we are trying to find ways and means to secure our lives. And the world is very complicated and doesn't readily yeild up sinecures like tenure. So we search. And in our searching we communicate with one another trying to make sense of our lifestyles, our religious, politics, diet, exercise, educations, job skills. There's a lot of information to process. But we'll alwyas be ignorant of something and until we reach the point at which we might be a tenured professor or acknowledged expert, there is always some detail or nuance that we do not know. We are in an inferior class of skill or knowledge. But that is acceptable because of the Class Boundary Scrutiny phenomenon which makes us good sports almost by default.
Except Stallman didn't respect that. He said, you should be like me. He is the diplomat scandalizing the Joe for his denim.
This is not about Stallman per se. It is about whether or not people can be safe in their ignorance. I say they should, according to gerneralizable class boundaries.
You see, I have a choice on a Saturday night to go out and watch a popular movie in theaters, or stay home and watch videos of Richard Stallman and write arcane essays about my insights. The former unites me with the masses, the latter alienates me. Well, let me qualify that. Knowledge alienates only when it is applied with discipline. But whether or not that discipline is applied, I at least have an additional layer of dissonance between myself and others who are not possessed of that same knowledge. That is because it takes me time to learn it and it takes me time to explain it to those who have not learned it. That's the minimal amount. If I apply the discipline as Stallman does, it seems like self-righteousness until I preach.
So today, the young man in the video and I both learned a lesson about the fact that certain chipsets, hidden within machines that might claim to be open, are not in fact open. Stallman bragged about his open source BIOS. The very idea of having an open source BIOS never crossed my mind, and I'm a programmer. Naturally, if I applied the discipline, then I alienate myself not only from Apple fanboys, but from the people who are completely satisfied with Apple products.
You see, if you are of a certain class, you have complete freedom within that restraint. How then could you be equal to any other human at a higher level? You cannot, but you pay the price with the implied contempt of the superior class, and you reap the benefit of the neglect of the superior class. You are not important enough to merit attention, and thus escape the brutal scrutiny of a would-be peer. Unless, you find someone who, like Stallman in the second lecture, is unctious with his contempt. Those are harsh words to apply to that particular lecture, but since much worse has been said about Stallman, I only use it to make clear the social nature of such a class boundary transgression.
BTW, when I think of the epithet 'bastard' this is exactly what I mean. A bastard, someone whose father doesn't recognize them, is the recipient of the worst kind of contempt. The bastard never gets the benefit of the doubt, is obsequeous and defensive at once. At some point they either transcend and find peace within themselves or they become a Bastard, which is someone who harries the newbs without mercy. A bastard is thus a person who possesses no grace and offers no quarter.
So you see in this regard we do and should use class to protect our honor and our ignorance. We can merit this by not being salf-righteous bastards but still make efforts to reduce the dissonance between ourselves and those who are more or less informed. It works both ways you see. You cannot assume that simply because something complicated that you don't understand is not going the way you expect, that you should immediately whip out the torches and pitchforks. As Chris Rock said, that's when 'keeping it real goes wrong'.