There Are No Bad Questions

Stuart Langridge made a guest appearance on Linux Downtime episode 50 to raise a concern regarding the topic of the previous episode, where four very active members in the Linux community wanted to discuss the definition of a Linux distribution. The issue has to do with gatekeeping, which can be best described as being a spiteful jerk to anyone who doesn't share an opinion in the hopes they go away and never appear again. There's no denying that Linux groups have struggled with these sorts of malicious actors for decades, though they can be found in any community that shares a common appreciation for a given subject. Stuart – and everyone who was part of episodes 49 and 50 – have voluntarily spent years encouraging people to participate in Linux communities and have rightly called out self-righteous gatekeepers for their unabashed behaviour. So I was taken aback when he went on to state that episode 49 was empowering callous individuals. He then went on to effectively say that there are some questions that simply cannot be asked; a position I vehemently oppose.

My issue here is not that you were going about the business of gatekeeping, […] it's that putting the discussion on the table at all is a bad idea because it only serves bad means. Literally no one needs a hard, bright-line definition of what a Linux distribution is. The only people who want that are people who want to be able to point to something they don't like and say "That's not a Linux distribution". […] The issue is not how you address the question, it's that you address that question. Because putting that on the table at all, first of all, so we come back to your "What is a Linux distribution?" question; no one needs an answer to this. As I say, it's not that you're doing gatekeeping. It's that people want that question so they can do the gatekeeping. And the fact that you, a bunch of influencers […] You are people who are looked up to by the community. And you're putting questions like "What is a Linux distribution?" on the table, which means that people will take away from that that "This is an okay thing to discuss". But, actually, no one needs an answer to this question. And you, putting it out there, empowers the sort of people who want to ask it because they want to be able to say "That thing you're doing, that is not a Linux distribution". That's gatekeeping. It's not that you're doing gatekeeping, it's that you're empowering gatekeepers. You're encouraging people to think that gatekeeping is okay. And that's my complaint.
– Stuart Langridge: Linux Downtime - Episode 50 (1:21 ~ 3:36)

Regardless of who is asking a question, be it "influencers" or just two people at a coffee shop, to suggest that asking a question at all should not be done is absurd. It prevents discussion. It inhibits examination. It actively blocks someone from thinking something through. Conversations such as the one Stuart has an issue with are a means of active thinking, of discovery and exploration. To suggest that some questions simply cannot be asked is to encourage ignorance at best and prejudice at worst. We cannot allow this. We must not.

We can already see the effects of "taboo questions" on various topics du jour today. We cannot ask questions about certain matters without fear of being cancelled, even if these are honest questions to better understand a legitimate issue. We cannot question definitions of certain words handed down by those "more virtuous" without fear of being cancelled. We cannot disagree or seek clarification when some aspect of a current issue seems to contradict itself. This is madness and I am loathe to see this sort of compelled censorship creep into the few remaining subjects that bring me joy for the sake of imaginary assholes.

Taking just one piece of Stuart's opening salvo:

But, actually, no one needs an answer to this question. And you, putting it out there, empowers the sort of people who want to ask it because they want to be able to say "That thing you're doing, that is not a Linux distribution".

By this logic, we shouldn't ask any questions. Ever. Because doing so will allow another human being – and remember, there are over 7.7-billion of us – to be a jackass to someone else.

Here are some questions that I have seen create some intense arguments over the last 25 years online:

  • Is J.J. Abrams' Star Trek actually Star Trek?
  • Is a parsec a unit of distance or time?
  • Is Star Trek better than Star Wars?
  • Is Dumbledore actually the villain?
  • Why do skyscrapers exist in the Marvel Universe when supervillains (and heroes) have been destroying cities for over half a century?

Or how about some more serious questions?

  • Does God actually reward a man for istishhād (martyrdom) through jihad with 72 virgins?
  • Is it a sin to work on the sabbath if your family does not have enough to eat?
  • How does one honour their parents to fulfil the 8th Commandment?
  • How did thousands of people hear Jesus' voice when He delivered the Sermon on the Mount (or on the plain)?

The list goes on, and an argument can be made that the vast majority of these questions may not matter in the grand scheme of things. But they should be allowed to be asked. If there are gatekeepers – or fundamental orthodox individuals – who will use these questions to deride someone's love of Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Marvel comic books, or God, then it's up to the community to address those bad actors and correct their behaviour. Hiding questions from view simply to prevent at asshole from being an asshole is no way to go through life, and it's no way for the rest of us to learn more about a subject.

Stuart Langridge is an intelligent, funny man with a keen insight on a lot of technology-centred topics. I like the vast majority of what he says on his own podcast, Bad Voltage. However, this complaint is something that I cannot agree with. For better or worse, speech must be permitted. If we are going to start censoring ourselves for fear that "someone, somewhere might use our words as justification for being a dick", then we may as well stop communicating altogether. Otherwise, let's stop being cowards and stand up to the handful of individuals in our communities that seek to discriminate and disrespect those who just want to learn about and rejoice in the same things that bring us joy. Maybe by growing a bit more of a spine, we can discriminate against the discriminators and make our communities a more welcoming place for honest and truthful conversation.