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  a newsletter by |_| j. b. crawford               home archive subscribe rss

>>> 2021-03-24 RMS (PDF)

And now, a brief diversion on current events, which will feature a great deal of opinion. I will limit my remarks somewhat because I do not want to be too harsh on RMS and because I do not want to put myself out there too much. However, I have had a personal experience that was very much formative of my opinion on the issue and I felt was worth sharing.

I once spent three days with Richard M. Stallman. I was the person his assistant would frequently call and ask to speak with him, since he objects to carrying a phone. I advertised the opportunity to meet him throughout the state. I talked him up as a philosophical leader in intellectual property and authorship to people outside of the computing field. I had FSF stickers all over my laptops. And a thermostat.

I have complex feelings about the man. On the one hand, I do not feel him to be an acceptable leader of the FSF or the movement. On the other hand, I respect him for having gotten us to where we are today. I believe that the human mind is large enough to hold both of these ideas at once, and that the good of the world we live in and the people we live with require us to do so.

I wholeheartedly supported RMS's original removal from the Free Software Foundation, and I am concerned about and opposed to the FSF's decision to once again give him a seat on the board. My reasons for this do indeed relate to RMS's track record of alarming opinions on sexual conduct and alleged history of sexual harassment, but are not limited to these.

Just as much, I am concerned about his competence. It is my opinion, and the opinion of a great many other people who I have discussed the matter with, that RMS has been a net negative for the Free Software Foundation and the larger Free Software movement for some time. He has repeatedly made questionable decisions in the leadership of the Gnu project and the FSF. In personal remarks to myself and others, he has shown a startling lack of awareness of or interest in contemporary issues in technology and privacy. He has persistently created the appearance, if not the reality, that he holds problematic and serious ethical views on issues of women and children. He is, not to put too fine of a point on it, constantly an asshole to everyone.

When hosting RMS, I occasionally saw "moments of lucidity," where RMS would make a surprisingly persuasive argument, ask an insightful question, or just tell a good story about his past accomplishments. But these moments were lost in the frustration, difficulty, and alarm of having become responsible for the leader of the free software movement who had, by most appearances, absolutely no ability to steward that movement in any positive direction. I grimaced as he accused an erstwhile supporter, in front of an audience, of being a traitor and undermining the cause by having contributed to FreeBSD. I did my best to steer him away when he started down a surprisingly racist path in the presence of many members of the race involved.

I have a great deal of respect for RMS. His past accomplishments, technically and philosophically, cannot be overstated and will have a lasting influence on the landscape of technology. However, we cannot allow his history to excuse the present. While RMS deserves our appreciation, I do not believe that he deserves a leadership role. He has demonstrated over a decade that he is more of a liability than an asset to the Free Software Foundation.

The Free Software Foundation itself has slid into complete irrelevancy, and in many circles RMS has become not a thought leader but a joke. Much of this is the result of conscious decisions made by RMS to exclude rather than include, to lash out in anger rather than make common ground, and to ignore the last twenty years of development not only in technology but also in the problems that technology creates. Free software, as a movement, is more relevant now than ever, but RMS has chosen to remain an artifact of a past era.

RMS did great things, and we should remember that. But we do not owe him a seat on the board or the title of Chief Gnuisance. RMS is not a god; he is not a prophet. He is a leader, and must be held to the same standards as every other. Indeed, the lofty ideology of the Free Software movement would seem to require that he be held to even higher standards than most. His position of leadership in the FSF, the Gnu project, and elsewhere, is contingent on his ongoing ability to give those projects the direction and inspiration they require to succeed. Stallman has remained in power over these projects for many years now only due to his obstinacy and status as an icon. Neither of these are justifications for those positions.

In the end, the old sometimes needs to make way for the new. RMS has done a great deal, but now, if not ten or more years ago, is the time for him to step aside. I hope that he continues to answer all of our emails and that his opinion continues to merit serious consideration, but he should not be viewed as the leader of any modern project or movement. He has already made the decision not to adapt to that role.

While I am not necessarily at the point of signing any open letters, I further agree that the decision of the FSF to accept RMS back into a position of leadership creates serious questions about the competency of the FSF board. Regardless of your opinions on the man, RMS's acceptance back into the fold was obviously going to create tremendous controversy and create the appearance that the FSF does not care about those who have made allegations against him. This is on top of the FSF's already poor track record of much noise and few results, which already suggested that a change in leadership may be needed.

There has been, and is, an ongoing problem with free and open-source software projects tolerating and even lauding leaders who are abusive, offensive, and a frequent source of allegations of misconduct. If any deep conspiracy is undermining the legitimacy of the Free Software movement, it is its ongoing association with problematic, aggressive leadership at multiple levels. If the Free Software Foundation and the larger movement are to establish themselves as beacons of good, they must show the ability to learn and improve. This includes correcting intolerant, offensive, and mean behavior, and evolving to meet the challenges of the modern world. The FSF has done neither. Instead, it has buried its collective head in the sand and then run another round of fundraising.

Finally, I fully appreciate the concern over neurodiversity. While RMS diagnosis as autistic is, as far as I can tell, completely an assumption by his supporters and thus already somewhat problematic, I do not believe that any such diagnosis would be a full excuse for his behavior. Assuming that RMS struggles to relate to others due to an underlying condition, the FSF and the communities he stewards need to step up to support him and correct his behavior. They have shown little to no interest in doing so, but rather either ignored or excused the problems he creates. Put another way, perhaps by no fault of RMS himself, the fact that the FSF continues to consider him a leader demonstrates that he should not be in that position. The FSF is not able to adequately support him in that role, instead sending him out to the world to offend a few more people and turn at least a dozen more against him. This is not kind to RMS or anyone else. It is a disservice to RMS, as a person, to continue to support him and enable him in digging his own hole.

All of this is, of course, merely my opinion. You are free to disagree, but if you do, please be polite. I'm ostensibly on vacation. Later this week, I plan to write about something more interesting and less personally uncomfortable.