What to Learn from the Downfall of RMS
Where did RMS go wrong? What can we learn from it?
Not knowing or not caring for the impact you make on others
First, a word of caution. This is all third-hand, or fourth-hand information that I’m presenting.
There is a huge number of people who seem to be willing to state that RMS had behaviour that was toxic/intimidating/manipulative/unwelcome.
My first interaction with RMS was at a hacker con at 19. He asked my name, I gave it, whether I went to MIT (I had an MIT shirt on), and after confirmation I did, asked me on a date. I said no. That was our entire conversation. Christine, yes, no thanks. https://t.co/xxQ1aQLZOr— Christine Corbett Moran (@corbett) May 9, 2018
I am still struck by the idea that all of the professors in the lab would keep special charms and amulets to ward off a specific person — if nothing else, this is an incredible illustration of the lack of functional recourse that professional women there previously had.— Star Simpson (@starsandrobots) May 9, 2018
After I met RMS, I nearly refused to meet a collaborator at the AI Lab (before I did my MEng in CSAIL) because I'd found the interaction uncomfortable and unnerving. My friend reassured me I'd be fine in the office because he kept a Pothos plant specifically to keep RMS out.— wØz (@kainzowa) September 16, 2019
I worked at the FSF for 3 years and volunteered for over 6 years — that ended in 2004. I witnessed misogyny, sexual objectification, and abuse carried out by RMS. I banded together with my coworkers, formed a union, negotiated a contract, and was elected shop steward. https://t.co/5fSO8OE7JY— ☕ (@paulnivin) March 23, 2021
I worked at the FSF from 2015-2018 & was shop steward for a while. I recall having a months (MONTHS) long conversation with ED John Sullivan about why racist & sexist 'hacker humor' from the 90s needed to be removed from https://t.co/xdH5QnreTe. rms didn't get why it was harmful. https://t.co/lkUaiDyaSl— georgia (@georgialyle) March 23, 2021
I worked at FSF from 2004-2007, and was also a steward (@UAW, woo). I witnessed rms on several occasions going out of his way to make women uncomfortable and displaying behaviors not at all congruent with living in a society. I could write a small book. https://t.co/579WwmnbRO— Justin “increasingly angry honking” Baugh (@thebaughj) March 25, 2021
Inspired by @georgialyle and others: I worked at the @FSF for just over two years (as a contractor then an employee). During this time I was an FSF associate member and donor. On my own time, I spent hours reading Richard's writing, editing it, and talking with him about issues.— M dB (@mmillions) March 24, 2021
rms made sure I wanted nothing to do with the @fsf back in 2008.— NCommander - Black Lives Matter (@FOSSfirefighter) March 22, 2021
Since then, he also normalized a lot of toxicity in FOSS development, and combined with active defense of predators and abusers.
This isn't something that should be celebrated to say the least. https://t.co/LICsAlrZId
“I was fifteen, still obviously underage, and skipping gym class to hear him speak at a professional conference (that I’d snuck into). He actually pointed to me in the back and proclaimed, into the mic, “A GIRL!” causing the audience to turn and look. Mortifying. Then he proceeded to gesture toward me every time he referred to “EMACS Virgins.” ~ This comment on a blog post where someone tried to convince RMS and failed
This thread is filled with examples of RMS’ views (some of which RMS had to correct later when people with sense made RMS realize how stupid they were) and behaviours that make people hate RMS.
👇Thread about the impact of Richard Stallman on marginalized groups in tech, especially women. [CW: rape, incest, ableism, sex trafficking]— Sage Sharp 🏳️🌈 (@_sagesharp_) September 16, 2019
The @fsf needs to permanently remove Richard Stallman from being President and Chair of the Free Software Foundation Board of Directors.
Often this happens to each one of us where we unintentionally hurt someone. And then we say “I didn’t mean to do that”. But does it matter? If you hurt someone without meaning to hurt someone, you’ve still hurt them. And it is on you to make them feel better by apologizing. Unless, you intend to hurt them. In which case, you have succeeded. By not apologizing to people and setting the record straight, RMS has told all of the people who have been hurt that it was done with intend.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ~ Maya Angelou
Update on 2021-03-27. I am adding a bit from my own private conversation with RMS where RMS makes this statement:
Another is that their feelings, their reaction to what I say, are a matter of their ideas. If a person has a peculiar sensitivity, and feels hurt by something I say which is in no way unfriendly or critical towards per, that doesn’t make me wrong for saying it.
Suppose a person regularly took offense on hearing me say the word “chair”. Would that create a moral obligation for me to stop using that word, and call them “seats” or “tables” instead? I don’t think so.
This is why every time RMS refers to the mess RMS created as “unfortunate misunderstanding”. RMS unilaterally decides what is not “unfriendly”, or not “critical” and then goes on to say that everyone who doesn’t agree with RMS’ choices are having “peculiar sensitivity”.
Not being humble
RMS is not humble. In other words, RMS is arrogant and assertive.
This is evident from any of the public interactions that RMS has made. RMS starts from a position of absolute authority.
Is authority good for charismatic leadership? Maybe. Maybe not. But authority is definitely not good when people do not feel awed by your charisma. People have stopped feeling awed by RMS’ charisma a long time back and RMS does not seem to have gotten the cue yet.
Humility comes with empathy and the care for what mark you leave on others. Therefore combined with the above point, RMS gets into a vicious circle where RMS is not humble because RMS doesn’t care about the mark RMS leaves on others. And because RMS isn’t humble to listen to others about the importance of this effect on others RMS doesn’t learn to care about it either.
Is it important to care about what mark you leave on others?
What do you think? Do you think RMS would be facing all this trouble if RMS cared about this?
It isn’t important to care about others if you’re going to stay in a cave all alone. But if you want to be a leader, or even be invited to places, you have to care. That’s unavoidable. You can’t make human beings feel bad and make them want to see you or talk to you at the same time. You either reject all human beings and stay alone, or you learn to live with them.
RMS misses the forest for the trees (or at least looks so)
RMS makes one mistake repeatedly. RMS approaches any given situation logically and talks only about the parts of the situation that appear illogical. RMS ignores the emotional component of the situation completely and omits stating own views on those. Even when there is larger logical point about the whole situation, RMS ignores talking about that. This is what others find insensitive. And despite people pointing it out, RMS does not make it a priority to address emotional aspects of issues.
For example, RMS urges people to avoid using the term “sexual assault”.
“The term is applied to a broad range of actions, ranging from stealing a kiss to rape, as well as other things in between. It acts as propaganda for treating them the same.”
What RMS is asking others to do is to take a nuanced look at sexual offences and not to treat everything the same. If you look at it from a purely logical point of view, that is right. There is the principle of proportionality in justice. If you look at every crime as the same, where is the nuance and where is proportionality?
On the other side there is cancel culture. Cancel culture is the strongest ally of feminist movement. It is what makes the otherwise too-powerful-to-touch come down and face consequences for their actions. In a heavily patriarchical society, cancel culture (for example, the #metoo movement) has resulted in a lot of good change. But the very nature of cancel culture is that it blurs nuances. Especially when it comes to sexual crimes. Cancel culture does not consider proportionality in deciding punishment. Cancel culture also makes one guilty by association. That’s how it derives its power too.
Unironically, RMS is being cancelled exactly because RMS is openly against diminution of nuance and guilt by association.
Another example is RMS’ views about age of consent. RMS repeatedly talks about the arbitrariness of choosing an age N above which it is okay to have sex and below which it becomes pedophilia. RMS asks for nuance when it comes to deciding in matters where someone who is just below age N is involved. And as usual, RMS often fails to comment on the larger issues of coercion, power, etc. And this makes RMS look guilty by association with the “wrong” people.
In all these cases, RMS spends considerable effort in crafting emails or political notes about the injustice in diminution of nuance. But in these notes, RMS talks very little about the relatively larger injustices that are coexisting in the same situation. It is not that RMS has a view that these larger issues do not exist. But by not talking about them, while indeed talking about the “minor” issues, RMS appears like RMS isn’t worried about the larger political problems in the world like patriarchy and oppression. In reality, though, the largest contributions that RMS has made in life is all about fighting these dominant powers.
Why does RMS do this? Again, RMS doesn’t understand or care about how others perceive RMS.
Aside: Does asking for nuance help the powerful get away?
According to Nagpur court, no sexual assault if someone touches you wearing gloves (because no skin-to-skin contact, you see). pic.twitter.com/QJ1JWkCkMW— Akshay S Dinesh (@asdofindia) January 25, 2021
Often, unfortunately, yes.
Taking a nuanced approach, in an unfair world, often means letting the powerful off the hook.
Is RMS incapable of understanding emotions?
There is a clear pattern that RMS does not understand or does not care about other people’s emotions. But which one of these is the truth? Is it that RMS does not understand emotions or is it that RMS understands emotions but considers them not important?
Many people say that RMS probably has a developmental disorder of the brain that makes it difficult to appreciate emotions. That would definitely make a lot of sense. Greta Thunberg, for example, proudly embraces Asperger’s Syndrome as a superpower. RMS has apparently once claimed to be “borderline autistic”.
Let us assume, for a moment, that all of RMS’ behaviour is explained by this particular neurodevelopmental issue.
How should the world treat people with a possibly different brain?
This is a critical question. Some people have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder which make their behaviour extremely irrational (to others) during acute episodes. Ideally, as a kind human society, we should help them receive the right medical care so that they can behave within the commonly accepted limits of social behaviour.
During an episode, though, we would not let them make major decisions, etc, for their own benefit. If they have socially inappropriate behaviour, we would help them avoid social interactions. We wouldn’t just let them parade around the town doing things and then run behind them yelling “Oh, please don’t mind, they are having an episode”.
Is it different for whatever RMS is suffering from? If RMS indeed has a neurodevelopmental disorder that makes RMS not care about others’ feelings and make RMS look like a jerk to others, how should we help RMS? Probably by removing RMS from positions and situations where the inappropriateness creeps in. And what happens when these come through the internet? Remove the internet connection?
Or, there is the alternative. The alternative is for the entire world to change the way they look at people. Consider every inappropriate thing everyone does as a result of their nature. Anyone who does anything that is not socially acceptable probably has a defence that their brain/mind is wired in certain ways. And they probably are right. The question is, how do we treat people generally and should we make an exception for RMS.
This discussion is counter-productive, though, because it is fundamentally about whether human beings have free will. And that is a question that nobody can answer.
Therefore, a more productive question to ask is about what is the best way to help individuals. And there will have to be specific solutions for specific people.
The problem doesn’t end there. If we are looking to help RMS, there is the question of equity or justice. How can we choose to help RMS in certain ways while ignoring the rest of the world who is also suffering from various kinds of issues. And the solution that we choose for RMS should also consider the problems of others.
For example, if our solution to RMS’ problems is that RMS be allowed to continue in influential positions, then what about people who suffer from RMS being in such positions? Aren’t their lives important? Should we care only about RMS’ mental health?
Caring for others vs free speech
I have once had a long exchange of emails where I tried to convince RMS of the irrationality in some of RMS’ views. In most of these, it eventually reached an impasse where when I said that RMS has to care about others’ feelings RMS was of the opinion that that amounts to restriction of freedom. RMS maintains that RMS has a right to offend.
That is similar to the same debate that India has been seeing. Hindus claiming that they have the right to offend Muslims. And liberals claiming that they have the right to offend fundametalists.
Who has the right to offend whom? The feminist view is that those who are suppressed or have less power has the right to offend those who are powerful and not vice-versa. There is the question of intersectionality and how to calculate power in any situation. (Refer my earlier blog post about reverse sexism where I talk about how power varies between individuals and how we cannot broadly put different categories of people in a hierarchy).
Anyhow, if that’s the case, the best solution to the situation is to strip RMS of as much power as possible. (It goes without saying that an individual who has done so much for free software movement has some powers which cannot be stripped off no matter what). The more human like RMS becomes, the more alright it will be for RMS to speak out without care about others’.
After all, with great power comes great responsibility.
It would be great if RMS understands how all these controversies are making RMS lesser and lesser effective as a leader and puts an end to it by apologizing and setting the record straight. But we don’t know if RMS’ brain is capable of that.
What about free software movement, though?
Is free software movement so weak that it can’t take the fall of one of its ex-leaders? Isn’t freedom also the freedom to be able to think on one’s own?