I've wanted to write about Stallman for a long time. Countless drafts have turned through my head, considered arguments and article structure, but whenever I actually wound up sitting down to write them out? I just felt mentally too tired to actually write them.
Not right now though. With Stallman having resigned from the FSFs directors position, I think it's important to take a deeper examination as to why Stallman resigned, what the issue is with Stallman as a whole and most importantly: What this means for the future of the FSF/GNU.
Why Stallman resigned
It's been iterated on a lot, but long story short, a few days ago, Stallman made some appaling comments on the MIT/CSAIL mailing list. These comments specifically concerned Marvin Minsky, the creator of the MIT AI lab. Minsky was one of the people that was implicated in the controversial pedophilia case surrounding Jeffrey Epstein as one of the people that Epstein told one of the accussers to sleep with, however as Minsky died in January 2016, this means that he was never accused formally of the crime (accusations against Minsky came to light in August of that same year).
The comments in question have been incorrectly cited by major publications (specifically, the publications went with the narrative that Stallman said that “she [Epsteins victim] would have been entirely willing”, which is a subtle misquote, as the word missing is “have been presented as entirely willing”, but the difference is somewhat minor-ish on the whole, but more on that in a bit).
As a result of this fallout, Stallman has resigned from the FSF and has been let go from MIT/CSAIL as a 'visiting professor'.
Now, one can argue that because the publications went with an incorrect quote, Stallman is essentially absolved from any blame and this is just another call out from “the esjeedoubleyous that want to destroy tech”. However, I would instead argue that the actual difference between what Stallman was claimed to have said and what he actually said is there, but the resulting impact should still have occurred, because the comments are reprehensible either way.
To be precise, what Stallman said was that Epstein likely coerced his victim to appear as “willing” in front of Minsky. Now this if youre debating on Stallmans level seems like an important distinction. If you live in non-crazy land, this distinction barely matters, because, coercion or not, “I didn't know about it” isn't an excuse that holds up on crimes of this magnitude.
It's also quickly forgotten by most comments I see made on the matter that Stallman tossed this up as an hypothesis, with little evidence aside from “Stallman thinks its logical for Epstein to do this”. You know what we call that? An argument that runs on Appeal to Common Sense. Which is a logical fallacy.
I should probably also add in that Stallmans position at MITs CSAIL was entirely because Minsky sponsored Stallman to come on as a visiting professor in the first place (more on this in a bit).
So what we seem to have here is someone who doesn't seem to be able to understand that his best friend likely might have been a sexual predator and is engaging in apologist behavior for said behavior on little ground other than “I think this makes sense”.
This is irrelevant on whether Stallmans hypothesis is true or not (to be clear, even the story Stallman presents would have landed Minsky prison time as a pedophile under the jurisdiction of the Virgin Islands), but his response to the legal argument (which in this case would be decisive) is uh...
“I think it is morally absurd to define “rape” in a way that depends on minor details such as which country it was in or whether the victim was 18 years old or 17.”
I don't think I have to explain this, but... “minor details such as age when it comes to rape”? Are you fucking kidding me? Blegh.
Anyway, the fallout due to this was... well, the usual situation. People got riled up, Stallman attempted to issue a non-apology, later made the utterly baffling statement on his personal political page (more on this page in general later) that sex with minors is a bad thing and that he finally understands that and today he's been let go from CSAIL and the FSF.
Caught up? Good. Now let's see why this is a thing that should have happened a long time ago.
Stallmans political views
No matter how you put it, Stallman is a political figure. FOSS is by design extremely left leaning in it's nature (particularly the copyleft, which is a core element of these licenses). He is also extremely closely tied to the FSF, to the point where I have noted that I see the FSF and GNU Foundation in general of being a personality cult around Stallman to friends.
With that in mind, we oughta talk about Stallmans views, because they're something that propagates heavily throughout the FSF.
- Stallman is a free speech absolutist, with all the core flaws this implies. He'll stick up for any kind of horrific speech and fundamentally misunderstands XKCD 1357 to apply it to corporations.
- Stallman believes that necrophilia should be legalized, seeing it as the second thing he would want to have happen to his own body after his death (the main thing being used for medical science).
- Stallman believes that bestiality should be legalized, mainly not seeing the issue because a parrot tried to mate with his arm once and he found it a funny experience after learning what happened and wouldn't mind it occuring again and because some animals try to mate with humans on their own (ignoring the fact that we cannot see what an animal thinks nor can we ask them about it and as a result can't give consent).
- Stallman believes pedophilia shouldn't be illegal based on the notion that the main issue surrounding it is a social stigma (to be fair to him; due to the incident I described earlier, Stallman has retracted this statement, but he's held it for ~15 years, so it bears mention!)
Feel properly disgusted yet? Well, like I said, these views tend to exist throughout the GNU/FSF, meaning that whenever Stallman gets flak for his political views, there's a large army of defenders for each and every single one of these.
Other things he believes should be legal, but I couldn't find any direct reasons to (although I could deduce the why): Possession of child pornography and incest.
Oh yeah, he also wants weed legalized, but somehow managed to describe it in the most pretentious way possible:
Besides, I often enjoy rhinophytonecrophilia (nasal sex with dead plants).
I uh... that isn't really disgusting (nor bad, legalization of weed for medical purposes I support), but it kinda sets the tone for anything involving him, doesn't it? A pretentious blowhard who says something using complicated words because it makes him look smart.
Do I... do I have to? Okay, I'll spend as little time on this as possible since this is truly disgusting.
Stallman eats gunk from between his toes. I kid you not, there's a YouTube video of him doing this, look it up, I'm not going to for my own sanity.
Okay, so we've gotten the already weird parts out of the way, now we have to actually talk about Stallmans influence on computing as a whole.
Stallman is oft credited as the founding father of the Free Software movement, it having born from a series of incidents in CSAIL, which saw a large number of those working in it being poached away by larger corporations. Stallman in response made the “heroic” act of leaving CSAIL and starting the GNU Foundation and the FSF.
Why do I put heroic in quotes there? Because yes, the situation at CSAIL from all accounts I could find on the internet was abhorrent, Stallman never really left CSAIL. He formally resigned from CSAIL, but only for a short while, as he later was given an essentially permanent status as Visiting Professor at the lab (this essentially meant that he got a free office, which in Stallmans case also has been his legal address for the past several decades since his house burnt down in the late 1980s and he hasn't bothered to find a new one since.)
It kinda puts things into a different perspective if this hero just turns out to have been in the same place he's been all this time, except now he's free to spend his time to complain at students not following his ideology.
On actual programming now, for realsies!
Let's now get into Stallmans actual relevant work for the Free Software movement. Whilst he deserves credit for y'know, making the GPL and writing the original version of the GNU coreutils... for the past 10 years or so, Stallmans main influences on the movement have been these:
- Serve as the public figurehead. (with the issues I mentioned in the political views part, so also a PR nightmare)
- Make PRs to emacs
- Complain on mailing lists about arbitrary things that irritate him. (GNU/Linux)
- Abuse his power as the head of the FSF to keep in a dumb joke about abortion that was incredibly Americentric and unfunny to begin with.
- Use his power as the head of the FSF to forbid merging code that would improve cross-compatability with not-FOSS software.
That's... not good. We've gone from someone who essentially wrote the foundation of Linux's popularity to someone who can at the most positive be described as a grandpa who yells at cloud and at it's most negative as little above a really persistent internet troll who manages to keep in power only because he started with some legitimacy. (The inbetween and the one I subscribe to: Stallman is a demagogue).
In short, Stallmans contributions as of the past decade don't weigh up against his former status as the head of FSF/GNU.
Luckily he's been fired though.
The FSF moving forward
In the numerous drafts I've made of articles of a similar tone to this one, I often conflated the FSF and Stallman, since again, their views share a lot. However, them firing Stallman gives me the idea that either this view was underinformed or perphaps more likely, has shifted over the years.
That said, even though Stallman is now gone, the views that he's permeated over the past decades have not. The FSF will need to get a tight grip on any of Stallmans “followers” that are currently becoming a very vocal minority on the internet that believe that Stallman shouldn't have been let go and that he's the Jesus of programming.
I do express hope here that the dust will settle though, and that moving forward, the FSF can find a better public face for their beliefs than Stallman.
Tackling one common defense
A common defense that I see pop up whenever people address these issues with Stallman (I'm hardly the first to do so) is that we should give him a pass because he says he is neuroatypical (aka has autism).
I very likely have a form of autism. Several of my friends have autism. None of us are even remotely close to the appalling behavior Stallman displays.
Autism means that I fail reading the room sometimes, misinterpret a joke as being a serious statement, fail to understand a social obligation and so on. And I have worked hard to not have it happen as often. I have learned social cues, and so have many of my friends. If you wouldn't spend extensive time with me, you probably wouldn't even know I had it.
Stallman putting his defense here on autism is offensive to autistic people. Even if he has it, the excuse isn't that he's autistic, the issue is that he doesn't bother learning how to deal with it.
Being autistic doesn't excuse you from being an asshole. It gives you some recompense, but a consistent repetition of the same asshole behavior over and over again just means you're a goddamn asshole.
🦀🦀🦀Stallman is gone🦀🦀🦀
Tags: #FOSS #Stallman #FreeSoftware