Although the consensus seems to be that it was time for the founder of the GNU project and the Free Software movement to step down, we shouldn’t forget his many contributions aimed at keeping tech free.
Everyone has been talking about last week’s resignation by Richard Stallman’s from MIT and the Free Software Foundation over his comment that one of Jeffrey Epstein’s underage victims willingly prostituted herself. [Change to: “…over his comment about one of Jeffrey Epstein’s underage victims.] Why should I be different? It’s not Stallman’s first mis-step in the sexual arena, but the comment and his reactions to the response suggest that he should have gone long ago.
I only met Stallman once, when he gave a couple of talks in Vancouver. As I wrote in a blog at the time, I found him an extremely ambiguous character, and had difficulties discussing him fairly. At the time, most of my dealings with the Free Software Foundation (FSF) were with Peter Brown, the executive director, an activist who did his best to ally free software with other social causes. Some months later, Stallman wrote an aggrieved email to me because in an article I had described as sexist his joke about “EMACs virgins” in a keynote at the Gran Canaria Desktop Summit in 2009. I refused to apologize and that was the last contact we had.
What strikes me now is how closely that incident a decade ago resembles this most recent one. In both cases, Stallman’s response was all about him. Nor did he show any awareness of how much his behavior harmed the free software movement he founded.
Stallman is rumored to be on the autism spectrum, and from the way he has acted, I could easily believe that. To suggest that a young woman would willingly engage in prostitution suggests a fundamental lack of understanding of human nature, to say nothing of the dynamics of power between a young woman and a powerful older male
[In the interests of accuracy, this last sentence should read, “To suggest without proof that a young woman could convincingly pretend to be willingly engaged in prostitution suggests a fundamental lack of understanding of human nature. Moreover, to imply that a middle-age man might honestly believe that a teenager was interested in him suggests an even deeper ignorance of the dynamics of power.” Neither version seriously changes the point.]
. Yet what I noticed most was how Stallman presented his ideas as a dispassionate academic discussion. When people recoiled, his reaction was to express his hurt. Although he was pressured into resigning his positions, when he announced his resignations he insisted that events were all “a series of misunderstandings and mischaracterizations,” His reason for this emphasis? The fact that headlines said he had defended Epstein. He seemed honestly confused about how blaming the victim removed culpability from Epstein.
Moreover, Stallman has never once apologized to the movement he helped to found, nor all the people he let down by his comment. Stallman has benefited hugely from the movement, receiving a salary, free world travel, and an assistant within the FSF, yet apparently it has never occurred to him that he had any obligation in return.
This type of leadership might have been acceptable in the past, but it is both damaging and embarrassing today. Yet if Stallman was aware of the expectations and obligations of his position, he showed no sign of that awareness. Even an elementary sense of diplomacy might have told him that, if he held such opinions, he should keep them to himself. But Stallman never once showed any sign of self-restraint.
Put out to pasture
Probably no one would ever admit the fact, but I suspect that for at least a decade now, Stallman has been shuffled sideways in the free software movement, left to circle endlessly on the lecture circuit while the actual work was done by others. His stubbornness, which probably keep free software going in the early years, has more recently proved harmful. It seems no coincidence that modern technologies like cell phones or the cloud, which Stallman rejects, are precisely the areas in which the FSF was slow to get involved. Similarly, the decision not to reach a consensus over the revision of the GNU General Public License seems to have something to do with Stallman’s animosity for Linus Torvalds, who saw no need for the revision. Both positions left free software and open source weaker and more ineffectual.
Yet the greatest result of Stallman’s stubbornness and ego is his continual insistence on referring to the major free operating system of our time as “GNU/Linux.” Not that he was wrong — in all fairness, credit should be spread around. However, for years now that cause has obviously been lost. Yet often, it seems that getting credit was all that interested Stallman. He constantly uses the point to derail discussion that might have educated people, and to ignore more pressing issues, making it clear that getting credit for the Linux operating system takes priority over almost everything else. Now, in 2019, the main purpose of insisting on “GNU/Linux” seems to be to help advocates to identify each other and to give young free software fundamentalists something to berate their allies with. Like so much about Stallman, the issue is a sign of misplaced priorities.
Stallman’s early achievements not withstanding, in the end, his behavior in the last thirteen years or so have divided free software supporters, and made common goals harder to achieve. Why, for example, does the Software Freedom Conservancy even exist? True, it is a responsible non-profit that does many necessary tasks on a limited budget. Yet, all the same, while its goals are worthy, they are identical to those of the FSF, and having two non-profits devoted to the same cause only means that donations are spread thinner. But when you notice that the Software Freedom Conservancy includes two former executive directors of the FSF and many other former members of the FSF, the inevitable conclusion is that it consists of people who could not work with Stallman.
Any lingering doubt is removed when I consider that the FSF simply announced Stallman’s resignation without comment, but the Software Freedom Conservancy released a statement declaring that “we are appalled at recent statements made by the president and founder of the Free Software Foundation, Richard Stallman, in his recent email to the MIT CSAIL mailing list. When considered with other reprehensible comments he has published over the years, these incidents form a pattern of behavior that is incompatible with the goals of the free software movement.” Where the FSF seems to protect Stallman by reflex, even when admitting the reality, the Software Freedom Conservancy is not afraid to admit the harm he has done. Perhaps that is why I keep hearing of people who no longer take out FSF memberships but do donate to the Software Freedom Conservancy.
At any rate, Stallman’s resignation comes as a relief. Like Joe Biden with his unconscious racism, he is yesterday’s man. Although Stallman’s behavior is an embarrassment to the entire free software movement, at least his resignation means that more contemporary leadership can start to emerge. In the end, Stallman’s resignation may be the best thing he has done for the movement since he started it thirty years ago.
Bruce Byfield has been involved in FOSS since 1999. He has published over
2000 articles, and is the writer of “Designing with LibreOffice,” which
is available as a free download at