Originally Published: Tuesday, 8 June 1999 Author: Illiad
Published to: columnists/Illiad Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

IN NOMINE TUX - Proselytizing Amongst the Heathens

I see it every time I'm around geeks, whether virtually or as flesh people: the infamous and ubiquitous OS Holy Wars. I'm not talking about the heated and vitriolic arguments you see from time to time on newsgroups or in IRC; rather, I'm referring to the moderate but frequent disparaging comments spoken by disgruntled users. And this extends to all operating systems, including Linux, BSD and BeOS. No OS gets to escape the ire or criticism of the community that uses it, zealots notwithstanding....

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I see it every time I'm around geeks, whether virtually or as flesh people: the infamous and ubiquitous OS Holy Wars. I'm not talking about the heated and vitriolic arguments you see from time to time on newsgroups or in IRC; rather, I'm referring to the moderate but frequent disparaging comments spoken by disgruntled users. And this extends to all operating systems, including Linux, BSD and BeOS. No OS gets to escape the ire or criticism of the community that uses it, zealots notwithstanding.

On occasion, however, I see proselytizing take place, and it's usually a disturbing and embarassing sight. Most of the "Linux preachers" I've encountered use non-productive tactics, such as intimidation and belittlement, usually from some lofty elitist platform. "If you use Windows you're Bill Gates' bitch!" would about sum up their argument, a position that isn't likely to help the reputation of the Linux community.

A lot of this has to do, I think, with the fact that most of us don't understand the process of conversion. It isn't a difficult or particularly complicated process, but it's one that requires some planning and the ability to listen to and understand what your convertee is saying. I also think that the best way to learn how to convert effectively is to examine the methods practiced by one of the most successful proselytizers in human history: the Roman Catholic Church.

I know that a large percentage--likely even a majority--of geeks are atheists or agnostics, and that the Roman Catholic Church is often afforded little respect by our demographic. Additionally, many of us tend to associate the Catholics with unsavoury things like the Inquisition, burnings, and political powermongering.

For all its faults, however, the Catholic Church was highly successful at converting the masses from their prevailing religion (Paganism was common in the early medieval ages) to the Church's specific brand of monotheism. The priests were taught to be steadfast in their faith, firm in their delivery, and compassionate to all. Compassion appeared to be the critical factor, since even faithless priests could attract the attention of the masses by simply approaching them with a helpful attitude.

The common people throughout history suffered from misery in one form or another, and kindly words and a ready ear from what eventually became the pillars of the community alleviated much of the suffering. This effect extends itself to our situation as computer users as well; our common misery appears to be lost work, frustration and increased stress.

The Catholics also understood that with the millions of pagans that had for generations lived comfortably and happily with their pagan gods and goddesses, patience was more than just a virtue: it was an absolute necessity. In the earlier ages when scientific knowledge was often untrusted and labelled as "ungodly," the Catholics showed remarkable astuteness when it came to human psychology.

The Church realized that belief was a deeply-rooted human trait, and that it took either fear or pressure over time to redirect it. Given the weak support that was offered to the first missionaries who travelled to lands distant from Rome, the early priests were forced to think long-term--generations, in fact--in their efforts to convert the heathens to the One True God.

This is obviously something we as Linux users need to consider for our methods in bringing new people into the fold. Adopting a "now or never" stance will bring about short-term gains and undermine any long-term foundation others are trying to build. A more moderate approach, one where you let the opposition hang itself while Linux is developed further and bettered over time may be the road we need to travel. As time passes and Linux permeates the mainstream and slices away at mind share, the general population will begin to realize that they have an attractive alternative to their "old religion." We'll have a product that others will want; therefore, let them come to us.

So the principles of successful conversion seems to boil down to two traits: compassion and patience. I'm not suggesting that we go around giving non-Linux users hugs and patting them on the shoulders; when I suggest compassion I refer to the practice of being non-judgemental, and refusing to get into mud-slinging contests with extremists in the other camp. Couple that with patience and the faith that Linux as a movement is now self-sustaining, and you will have a powerful body that attracts followers by inertia alone, a feat that zealotry and elitism will never accomplish.

Fire and brimstone has no place in an intelligent and thinking community. If we're going to attract the smart ones in the general population, we should practice precisely what it is we preach.

Illiad (illiad@userfriendly.org) is the creator of User Friendly the Comic Strip and wants to become a Sith Lord one day.





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