So Richard Stallman is back at the FSF, on the board of directors this time rather than as President. I’m not sure how significant this position is in the day-to-day operations, but I’m not sure if that’s really important.
How anyone could have thought this was a good idea is beyond me. I’ve long considered Stallman to be a poor representative of the community, and quite frankly it baffles me that people do. I’m not sure what the politics were that led up to this decision; I had hoped that after Stallman’s departure the FSF would move forward and shed off some of the Stallmanisms. It seems this hasn’t happened.
To quickly recap why Stallman is a poor representative:
Actively turned many people off because he’s such a twat; one of the better examples I know of is from Keith Packard, explaining why X didn’t use the GPL in spite of Packard already having used it for some of his projects before:
Richard Stallman, the author of the GPL and quite an interesting individual lived at 5405 DEC square, he lived up on the sixth floor I think? Had an office up there; he did not have an apartment. And we knew him extremely well. He was a challenging individual to get along with. He would regularly come down to our offices and ask us, or kind of rail at us, for not using the GPL.
This did not make a positive impression on me; this was my first interaction with Richard directly and I remember thinking at the time, “this guy is a little, you know, I’m not interesting in talking to him because he’s so challenging to work with.”
And so, we should have listened to him then but we did not because, we know him too well, I guess, and met him as well.
He really was right, we need to remember that!
His behaviour against women in particular is creepy. This is not a crime (he has, as far as I know, never forced himself on anyone) but not a good quality in a community spokesperson, to put it mildly.
His personal behaviour in general is … odd, to put it mildly. Now, you can be as odd as you’d like as far as I’m concerned, but I also don’t think someone like that is a good choice to represent an entire community.
Caused a major and entirely avoidable fracture of the community with the Open Source movement; it’s pretty clear that Stallman, him specifically as a person, was a major reason for the OSI people to start their own organisation. Stallman still seems to harbour sour grapes over this more than 20 years later.
Sidetracking of pointless issues (“GNU/Linux”, “you should not be using hacker but cracker”, “Open Source misses the point”, etc.), as well as stubbornly insisting on the term “Free Software” which is confusing and stands in the way if communicating the ideals to the wider world. Everyone will think that an article with “Free Software” in the title will be about software free of charge. There is a general lack of priorities or pragmatism in almost anything Stallman does.
Stallman’s views in general on computing are stuck somewhere about 1990. Possibly earlier. The “GNU Operating System” (which does not exist, has never existed, and most likely will never exist) is not how to advance Free Software in modern times. Most people don’t give a rat’s arse which OS they’re using to access GitHub, Gmail, Slack, Spotify, Netflix, AirBnB, etc. The world has changed and the strategy needs to change – but Stallman is still stuck in 1990.
Insisting on absolute freedom to the detriment of more freedom compared to the status quo. No, people don’t want to run a “completely free GNU/Linux operating system” if their Bluetooth and webcam doesn’t work and if they can’t watch Netflix. That’s just how it is. Deal with it.
His views are quite frankly ridiculous:
If [an install fest] upholds the ideals of freedom, by installing only free software from 100%-free distros, partly-secret machines won’t become entirely functional and the users that bring them will go away disappointed. However, if the install fest installs nonfree distros and nonfree software which make machines entirely function, it will fail to teach users to say no for freedom’s sake. They may learn to like GNU/Linux, but they won’t learn what the free software movement stands for.
My new idea is that the install fest could allow the devil to hang around, off in a corner of the hall, or the next room. (Actually, a human being wearing sign saying “The Devil,” and maybe a toy mask or horns.) The devil would offer to install nonfree drivers in the user’s machine to make more parts of the computer function, explaining to the user that the cost of this is using a nonfree (unjust) program.
Aside from the huge cringe factor of having someone dressed up as a devil to install a driver, the entire premise is profoundly wrong; people can appreciate freedom while also not having absolute/maximum freedom. Almost the entire community does this, with only a handful of purist exceptions. This will accomplish nothing except turn people off.
Crippling software out of paranoia; for example Stallman refused to make gcc print the AST – useful for the Emacs completion and other tooling – because he was afraid someone might “abuse” it. He comes off as a gigantic twat in that entire thread (e.g. this).
How do you get people to use Free Software? By making great software people want to use. Not by offering some shitty crippled product where you can’t do some common things you can already do in the proprietary alternatives.
Luckily, the backlash against this has been significant, including an open letter to remove Richard M. Stallman from all leadership positions. Good. There are many things in the letter I can agree with. If there are parliamentary hearings surrounding some Free Software law then would you want Stallman to represent you? Would you want Stallman to be left alone in a room with some female lawmaker (especially an attractive one)? I sure wouldn’t; I’d be fearful he’d leave a poor impression, or outright disgrace the entire community.
But there are also a few things that bother me, as are there in the general conversation surrounding this topic. Quoting a few things from that letter:
[Stallman] has been a dangerous force in the free software community for a long time. He has shown himself to be misogynist, ableist, and transphobic, among other serious accusations of impropriety.
him and his hurtful and dangerous ideology
RMS and his brand of intolerance
Yikes! That sounds horrible. But closer examinations of the claims don’t really bear out these strong claims.
The transphobic claim seems to hinge entirely on his eclectic opinion regarding gender-neutral pronouns; he prefers some peculiar set of neologisms (“per” and “pers”) instead of the singular “they”. You can think about his pronoun suggestion what you will – I feel it’s rather silly and pointless at best – but a disagreement on how to best change the common use of language to be more inclusive does not strike me as transphobic. Indeed, it strikes me as the exact opposite: he’s willing to spend time and effort to make language more inclusive. That he doesn’t do it in the generally accepted way is not transphobia, a “harmful ideology”, or “dangerous”. It’s really not.
Stallman’s penchant to make people feel unconformable has long been known; and should hardly come as a surprise to anyone. Many who met him in person did not leave with an especially good impression of him for one reason or the other. His behaviour towards women in particular is pretty bad; many anecdotes have been published and they’re pretty 😬
But … I don’t have the impression that Stallman dislikes or distrusts women, or sees them as subservient to men. Basically, he’s just creepy. That’s not good, but is it misogyny? His lack of social skills seem to be broad and not uniquely directed towards women. He’s just a socially awkward guy in general. I mean, this is a guy who will, when giving a presentation, will take off his shoes and socks – which is already a rather weird thing to do – will then proceed to rub his bare foot – even weirder – only to proceed to appear to eat something from his foot – wtf wtf wtf?!
If he can’t understand that this is just … wtf, then how can you expect him to understand that some comment towards a woman is wtf?
Does all of this excuse bad behaviour? No. But it shines a rather different light on things than phrases such as “misogynist”, “hurtful and dangerous ideology”, and “his brand of intolerance” do. He hasn’t forced himself on anyone, as far as I know, and most complaints are about him being creepy.
I don’t think it’s especially controversial to claim that Stallman would have been diagnosed with some form of autism if he had been born several decades later. This is not intended as an insult or some such, just to establish him as a neurodivergent individual. Someone like that is absolutely a poor choice for a leadership position, but at the same time doesn’t diversity also mean diversity of neurodivergent people, or at the very least some empathy and understanding when people’s exhibit a lack of social skills and behaviour considered creepy?
At what point is there a limit if someone’s neurodiversity drives people away? I don’t know; there isn’t an easy answer to his. Stallman is clearly unsuitable for a leadership role; but “misogynist”? I’m not really seeing it in Stallman.
The ableist claim seems to mostly boil down to a comment he posted on his website regarding abortion of fetuses with Down’s syndrome:
A new noninvasive test for Down’s syndrome will eliminate the small risk of the current test.
This mind lead more women to get tested, and abort fetuses that have Down’s syndrome. Let’s hope so!
If you’d like to love and care for a pet that doesn’t have normal human mental capacity, don’t create a handicapped human being to be your pet. Get a dog or a parrot. It will appreciate your love, and it will never feel bad for being less capable than normal humans.
It was later edited to its current version:
A noninvasive test for Down’s syndrome eliminates the small risk of the old test. This might lead more women to get tested, and abort fetuses that have Down’s syndrome.
According to Wikipedia, Down’s syndrome is a combination of many kinds of medical misfortune. Thus, when carrying a fetus that is likely to have Down’s syndrome, I think the right course of action for the woman is to terminate the pregnancy.
That choice does right by the potential children that would otherwise likely be born with grave medical problems and disabilities. As humans, they are entitled to the capacity that is normal for human beings. I don’t advocate making rules about the matter, but I think that doing right by your children includes not intentionally starting them out with less than that.
When children with Down’s syndrome are born, that’s a different situation. They are human beings and I think they deserve the best possible care.
He also made a few other comments to the effect of “you should abort if you’re pregnant with a fetus who has Down’s syndrome”.
That last paragraph of the original version was … not great, but the new version seems okay to me. It is a women’s right to choose to have an abortion, for any reason, including not wanting to raise a child with Down’s syndrome. This is already commonplace in practice, with many women choosing to do so.
Labelling an entire person as ableist based only on this – and this is really the only citation of ableism I’ve been able to find – seems like a stretch, at best. It was a shitty comment, but he did correct it which is saying a lot in Stallman terms, as I haven’t seen him do that very often.
Phrases like “a dangerous force”, “dangerous ideology”, and “brand of intolerance” make it sound like he’s crusading on these kind of issues. Most of these are just short notes on his personal site which few people seem to read.
Most of the issues surrounding Stallman seem to be about him thinking out loud, not realizing when it is or is not appropriate to do so, being excessively pedantic over minor details, or just severally lacking in social skills. This can be inappropriate, offensive, or creepy – depending on the scenario – but that’s just something different than being actively transphobic or dangerous. If someone had read only this letter without any prior knowledge of Stallman they would be left with the impression that Stallman is some sort of alt-right troll writing for Breitbart or the like. This is hardly the case.
I think Stallman should resign of newly appointed post, and from GNU as well, over his personal behaviour in particular. Stallman isn’t some random programmer working on GNU jizamabob making the occasional awkward comment, he’s the face of the entire movement. Appointing “a challenging individual to get along with” – to quote Packard – is not the right person for the job. I feel the rest of the FSF board has shown spectacular poor judgement in allowing Stallman to come back.
But I can not, in good conscience, sign the letter as phrased currently. It vastly exaggerates things to such a degree that I feel it does a gross injustice to Stallman. It’s grasping at straws to portray Stallman as the most horrible human being possible, and I don’t think he is that. He seems clueless on some topics and social interactions, and find him a bit of a twat in general, but that doesn’t make you a horrible and dangerous person. I find the letter lacking in empathy and deeply unkind.
In short, I feel Stallman’s aptitudes do not apply well for any sort of leadership position and I would rather not have him represent the community I’m a part of, even if he did start it and made many valuable contributions to it. Just starting something does not give you perpetual ownership over it, and in spite of all his hard work I feel he’s been very detrimental to the movement and has been a net-negative contributor for a while. A wiser version of Stallman would have realized his shortcomings and stepped down some time in the late 80s to let someone else be the public face.
Overall I feel he’s not exactly a shining example of the human species, but then again I’m probably not either. He is not the devil and the horrible person that the letter makes him out to be. None of these exaggerations are even needed to make the case that he should be removed, which makes it even worse.
It’s a shame, because instead of moving forward with Free Software we’re debating this. Arguably I should just let this go as Stallman isn’t really worth defending IMO, but on the other hand being unfair is being unfair, no matter who the target may be.
A set of commandline utilities, libc, and a compiler are not an operating system. Linux (the kernel) is not the “last missing piece of the GNU operating system”. ↩
Neurodivergency is, in a nutshell, the idea that “normal” is a wide range, and that not everyone who doesn’t fits with the majority should be labelled as “there is something wrong with them” such as autism. While some some people take this a bit too far (not every autist is high-functioning; for some it really is debilitating) I think there’s something to this. ↩
I guess this shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise, as the only people willing and able to hang around Stallman’s FSF were probably similar-ish people. It’s probably time to just give up on the FSF and move forward with some new initiative (OSI is crap too, for different reasons). I swear we’ve got to be the most dysfunctional community ever. ↩