Bonum Certa Men Certa

When A Distro Is A Cult

By figosdev

A group of geese



Summary: Herd mentality in GNU/Linux (or groupthink) coming under scrutiny

I made the decision not to name any names in this article, both out of gratitude to certain individuals and because it applies to least a couple of distros out there. I'm going to be drawing from first-hand experience with a handful of distros, and an actual cult, but also from many years of reading about cult-like behaviour to compare it to my own experience.



What's outlined here is exactly what we should never do to people, but it does happen.

"If I compare certain distros to cults, it's not really a metaphor, tongue in cheek, or even an exaggeration."Cults are a serious thing -- they drive people into depression and despair, they lie and take people's money on very false pretenses, which in itself makes them a dubious enterprise, and they frequently threaten, intimidate, and even commit violent acts against people. Sometimes they even kill. But it isn't murder that makes a cult what it is; it's a certain, and regular, and insidious kind of abuse.

If I compare certain distros to cults, it's not really a metaphor, tongue in cheek, or even an exaggeration. I've personally been in worse situations than the ones I'm going to be talking about. But the things I'm talking about are still extremely wrong, and I've spent years examining and processing my feelings about them, and this is something that at least someday, we really ought to stand up to (I don't think our communities are ready. Maybe certain individuals are.)

To anyone who thinks I'm taking this out on Free software, let me stop you there -- Apple is a cult, or at least we've read plenty of stories about Jobs as their abusive cult-leader. Although it's harmful and a bit dehumanising to be part of any cult at all, if I had to be in one I would choose several of the very worst Free software communities over working for Apple. And I don't think Apple was even the worst thing like it in the tech world.

"To anyone who thinks I'm taking this out on Free software, let me stop you there -- Apple is a cult, or at least we've read plenty of stories about Jobs as their abusive cult-leader."But I'm not picking on Free software over corporate culture here. With that said, some of our "tightly knit" communities can provide a certain and unexpected level of isolation.

Most people who are in a cult will never know it, and will laugh at the idea. There's absolutely no way around that. They are either happy or believe themselves to be content. Some of them are happy due to the fact that they're exploiting people every day, and they take pleasure in doing so. Others are simply getting convinced on a regular basis, by friends or leaders. One thing you can be certain of, is that giving your all to a project is no guarantee of not being mistreated.

Themes I talk about from time to time include monopoly, narcissism and large corporations. While I believe that small companies can bring good things into the world, and that commerce and free trade are not inherently evil, I share with anticapitalists a belief that very large companies are far more likely to hurt people than do good overall. Known cults can be very large -- global, well-funded, with very large victim counts, but I'm not talking about very large companies today even if they deserve it.

"Known cults can be very large -- global, well-funded, with very large victim counts, but I'm not talking about very large companies today even if they deserve it."Because every Free software community should be better than a very large company. If they can't offer better than a cult-like experience, why even talk about Free software? A cult is a producer of non-free software for the mind.

You can't study the entire cult experience or dogma, just parts of it. You aren't free to change it. You are at least encouraged to share it with others, but typically not in a way that's different from telling people to buy something with Windows on it -- "sharing" in this context really just means drawing more people in to suffer the same non-freedom that you do. And like Windows, if you decide that you've finally found a way to eek out some approximation of the life they originally promised -- they just go and change it on you in the next update.

This is no way to live. And if it's not perfectly clear, we could just as easily call this article "Don't Do Things Like The Big Corporations Do." But if we are talking about cult-like behaviour, then just saying "Don't Be Corporateâ„¢" might not be clear enough.

Besides, I wish we were talking about something only corporations do, but we aren't. This is a people problem, and one of the larger ones. And it doesn't happen only in small groups or only large groups.

I'm fond of comparing the narcissist to a corporate monopoly, and narcissists play a significant role in cults. If I said that narcissists act like leaders of their own small cults I wouldn't even be the first to do so. But a narcissist could (and they often do) have their own little cult as part of a broader community, without the community itself turning into something of their own influence.

Lots of projects include narcissists before, or without a takeover that puts them near the top. Just because your project is a cult doesn't mean that you're the one who made it that way. It's even possible to lose control of your project to such a thing.

"People have tried to paint the FSF as a cult and paint Stallman as a narcissist."In the event you're thinking about it, let me add: it's also possible that this has happened to the FSF, but I don't think it has just yet. Don't think it isn't on my mind. People have tried to paint the FSF as a cult and paint Stallman as a narcissist. Having dealt with lots of narcissists, I'd put the chances they're right between 0 and 10%. I know why they feel he's narcissistic -- I can think of several reasons they do or might. There are more reasons he isn't, but I could always be wrong.

Whether Stallman deserves that label is something I've given years of thought to. Why not? His opponents always invite us to do so.

And I've complained about that tactic for years. When Stallman parodies religion, people come out of the woodwork and whisper "he really means it!" Then they imply he's a zealot, and then they say they're his "friend." And I've got plenty of experience with narcissists to compare him to, and enough experience dealing directly with Stallman.

Yeah, I could be wrong. But a feeling about a cult will sit like a pit in my stomach for years, and the only pit I feel about Stallman is that he's a victim of cult tactics I find all too familiar -- not a perpetrator of them. Don't forget that Free software is his life and I've written a book about everything I think Free software gets wrong.

"Don't forget that Free software is his life and I've written a book about everything I think Free software gets wrong."The biggest factor in a cult is the way it treats people. And this becomes more and more specific. You can't just point to someone being a jerk or a bully or a few nerds insisting they're right about everything. Maybe that's when you start paying attention, but that's not a cult -- that's just everyday people anywhere in the world.

You could, and I think maybe even Wikipedia has at some point, say that it's difficult to tell just when a cult is a cult the same way it's difficult to tell exactly when a pile of sand next to water is a beach. Hopefully you figure it out before years of abuse have taken place.

Maybe the easiest way to determine a harmful cult status is if a narcissist has gained enough power to charm their way up the ranks, almost to the top. We generally think of cults as having a rotten leader, but I'll go one further and say (as I did once already) that you don't have to be the actual leader of an organisation for it to become a cult. You only have to be close enough to the top.

Otherwise, you may have your own little cabal -- but the people who actually run the group keep you in check enough to protect everyone but the poor few suckers who actually put stock in your brand of manipulation.

"The whole notion of gaslighting is to abuse someone's trust and sense of wellbeing, to wear them down and make them think everything is in their head."So one measuring stick we can use to determine a cult is the position of certain people who abuse their influence over the group. They either have to be the leader, or close enough.

The next criteria -- and I'm really just trying to put together what experience and knowledge I have into something for a broad range of people; if you're looking for a definitive work on cults I don't even know where you should look for one -- would be the tactics used on the community.

Cults often last for years or longer, and much like a parasite -- they wouldn't endure if they were always obvious and not in the habit of being subtle. The whole notion of gaslighting is to abuse someone's trust and sense of wellbeing, to wear them down and make them think everything is in their head. It's a way of emotionally isolating someone, of becoming their captor and controlling their interaction with the rest of the world -- or the broader community.

When a victim does manage to leave a cult, you want to be sure they sound paranoid and ridiculous -- not coherent, calm and organised. If you start out by opening your arms to disadvantaged people, narcissists are known for doing this because they are already victims; they lack the charisma or confidence needed to make a sturdy case against something other people are in the habit of overlooking.

"It's possible to have a cult with just a few people, but when it happens with more it can disrupt and destroy an entire community."You may spend literally years being sure you're going to catch the people doing this to you in a lie, a lie so big and so blatant that they won't escape your accusation this time -- you've got them now! But of course if you confront them they will only lie again and call you an idiot. (Better luck next time.) They may even pretend to show mercy: "That's okay, I know you're frustrated and I'm not offended that you're taking it out on me."

When a narcissist or a manipulative sociopath is working with a small circle of people a bit like themselves, they will try to get you to believe all kinds of ridiculous things -- just as a game, for fun, and to learn how they can exploit you further. This is like the social equivalent of portscanning or pentesting. At least, it seems like it to me. Once they're "in" they deploy further nonsense designed to get you to do whatever they want. A narcissist loves to get people to do their bidding, (really, lots most people enjoy being waited on, just not necessarily on a level that makes them a monster) and when they have ensnared someone they will generally have them assist in many of their plans.

"Smaller cults typically have the cult leader right at the top. Larger cults may have an even worse leader temporarily under a bad leader, until they succeed in taking over."For a cult this is on a different level. It's possible to have a cult with just a few people, but when it happens with more it can disrupt and destroy an entire community. Once again, I really have to stress that this can happen despite the best and sincerest intentions of the project leader. It's even beneficial if the leader of the project is a good person, because their own decency will draw all the suspicion and deflect most of it on behalf of the person actually making it a cult. Smaller cults typically have the cult leader right at the top. Larger cults may have an even worse leader temporarily under a bad leader, until they succeed in taking over.

Again, underpinning all of this is a lack of autonomy for the individual. It's one thing to cooperate in a team under a leader, it's another to have abuse and dishonesty, emotional and psychological manipulation play a significant role in how the community is managed. The abuse is often subtle, aimed at relatively few people at once, people on the outside have no idea what goes on, and people on the inside are generally unaware. This is also typical of narcissistic abuse on a one-to-one or family scale, but with a cult it is part of how the organisation behaves. This article could go into more detail about the behaviour and tactics of a narcissist, but a cult in this context isn't necessarily much more than institutionalised narcissism.

Which brings us to the final point of this criteria. We talked about the nature of the people doing this in the first point, then the nature of what they do in the second point, and now we will talk about the effects of such a thing.

Throughout this article, I've hoped to make it clear that it isn't any single thing that makes an organisation a cult. It isn't any single thing out of place that creates a mess in a room, either -- it's the overall state of many things at once. A complete mess is an obvious thing, and you know it when you see it. A cult is a mess that may not be obvious until you've seen enough of them to recognise subtle patterns. As you learn more, those patterns become much clearer and easier to find when present.

"Some people abused by cults become cult leaders of their own."The effect such treatment has isn't always obvious either. Some people abused by cults become cult leaders of their own. Others withdraw and leave the broader community (or industry) entirely. As a broader community, we can do so much for these people if we learn more and give people places to go where there is less of this sort of abuse and manipulation. We don't actually have that to offer, but it's something we could become if we really want to evolve as a community or a species.

Most importantly though, this is about our humanity, not perfection or even standards. Education "reform" will tell you all you need to know about "standards." Standards mean we continue to teach the wrong way, putting more and more stress on grades and statistics and meaningless results, so that "education" becomes more and more about getting the "right answer" than actually learning or understanding anything. I firmly believe we are subjecting our communities to the same destructive fallacy.

Please don't interpret anything I say about "evolving as a community" as something to do with "standards." These "standards" are a lot of hypocritical, propaganda-inspired, corporate hooey -- designed to divide us further in the name of "unity." We can actually determine our own association with people, without their help, thanks.

"Truly moving forward is always about taking what we have now, and working towards the best possible scenario."But I also believe that greater awareness of institutional problems will help us determine a reasonable (non-hysterical) way forward. It won't be Utopian, it will be stupid and imperfect and clumsy, like people tend to be. But that's far better than being psychologically manipulative and trying to destroy people in an effort to produce conformity. What's more, is that this is the sort of "stupid and imperfect and clumsy" that produced the best Free software in the history of Free software -- and we didn't even have to give up our freedom as people to produce it.

I'm not suggesting that we "go back to the good old days," because that trick never works. Truly moving forward is always about taking what we have now, and working towards the best possible scenario. It never looks identical to the past, but it does learn lessons from both the good and bad of history. This means we never recreate the past but we do remember the best things about it. And if we miss those things, we try to bring those aspects into the future with us.

"These are qualities we find many things at war with lately -- we are encouraged to be agreeable, dependent and conventional, as often as possible (or be labeled as nothing but troublemakers, not visionaries.)"Cults create people that are damaged by cults. On average at least, people are not left stronger collectively, but weaker and afraid of engaging as they did before. It takes a very stubborn person to withstand that sort of abuse and continue to strive for better things, not only for themselves but for others who aren't as strong.

There is also a larger cult that is setting up shop in our broadest community. We are constantly being invited in, to sit down and enjoy all the rotten, broken promises that will be served on a platter with smiles and platitudes, not unlike a pile of excrement. If we join, we will leave feeling ill and disgusted, but who will believe our story?

The thing about cults, is this happens far too often and practically everyone is fairly removed from it. This isn't something we can wipe off the face of the earth -- many have tried to and failed. What we can do, is learn to recognise these problems, avoid staying in the middle where we lend them too much credibility, and give people better places to go.

"Work to make software "more free." More free than it is now."That involves being insightful, stubborn, resilient, and often unconventional (as convention is often used to justify broader abuse, something more and more of us bear witness to on a daily basis these days.) These are qualities we find many things at war with lately -- we are encouraged to be agreeable, dependent and conventional, as often as possible (or be labeled as nothing but troublemakers, not visionaries.)

This is not about standards, nor is it about brands. It is about what it means to be a community and what it means to be human. We owe ourselves so much better than the shit we go through right now, but there isn't much we can do except to keep learning more, keep trying, and be ready to pull someone up when they've been knocked down.

But if you're more the philosopher type, and don't know (or even want to know) a single thing about human psychology and manipulation, there is another, less "organic" and less messy way to fight all this. Both methods are good, one could be better than the other, but either would be an enormous help.

"Most of the software that goes into a distro is from outside, and what people really fight about is what's included, what's not, and how it's put together."Work to make software "more free." More free than it is now. Because I've tried to say for years now, that the old way a distro is put together encourages cults to form around them. You can create a distro without a cult in the same way you can create a pile of sugar without ants. But all this pushing around to produce a (very useful!) "package deal" of software attracts power plays and coup d'états.

Most of the software that goes into a distro is from outside, and what people really fight about is what's included, what's not, and how it's put together.

"Greater Software Freedom for the mind is more likely to result in greater Free software for our devices."If we worked to usher in a completely new age of freedom around those things, if we managed to transcend the distro concept, it could create a new level of freedom for the user that left these cults with less to offer and less reason to exist. Instead of a large pile of sugar to invite an infestation, we would have easy-to-manage packets. I love to think about the future of the distro going in such a direction (don't get too caught up in comparing this to universal packages, which may play a role or may not at all. I'm not a major fan of any implementation yet.)

But by all means, work on the human aspect if that's what you're suited to. Greater Software Freedom for the mind is more likely to result in greater Free software for our devices.

Licence: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (public domain)

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