The Cause and the Effect

This week Richard Stallman resigned as president of the Free Software Foundation. It is long overdue, and I am grateful to Selam G., the writer of the blog post that sparked it.

I was disappointed to read that Michael Meeks’ post Tuesday on Planet GNOME repeated the excuses I’ve seen on Twitter and Reddit about mob rule and mischaracterization. Michael is of course entitled to that opinion, and unlike most Twitter and Reddit threads I’ve seen, has expressed it thoughtfully (which is why I think I can actually achieve something by writing this in turn.) I personally believe that that opinion does not stand up under scrutiny, and I hope writing a counterpoint might give him or others in the GNOME community food for thought.

I believe that we — especially in the GNOME community where it’s a goal to hold ourselves to high standards of treating each other well — must not let ourselves fall into the trap of saying ‘Stallman was just defending a friend, out come the pitchforks, just for one email, who will they come for next’ and thereby fail to see the whole picture. If it was really just one email and not years of well-documented bad behaviour and refusal to change, we’d be having an entirely different conversation.

Many who are grateful that Stallman has finally left the FSF are nonetheless anxious or grieving in some way: for the ideal of someone who may have been a hero to us before we realized what he was like in person; for trepidation about the future of the free software movement; or even for having to watch Stallman bring himself down in an avoidable, decades-long slow-motion train wreck. This is all understandable, but we should not let grief channel itself into minimizing or excusing or working around bad behaviour, or rules-lawyering about the interpretation of Stallman’s words. These two lines from Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson, singing about a different kind of grief, seem oddly fitting here:

Do not choose a coward’s explanation
That hides behind the cause and the effect

I will also refer you to Thomas Bushnell’s reflections from which I’d like to emphasize this paragraph, which is a response (expressed better than I could myself) to anyone who thinks that this one event can be regarded in isolation:

RMS’s loss of MIT privileges and leadership of the FSF are the appropriate responses to a pattern of decades of poor behavior. It does not matter if they are appropriate responses to a single email thread, because they are the right thing in the total situation.

The words of Matt Blaze are also appropriate here:

We will, as always, be treated to much examination of the precise nature and mass of the last straw, with observations that it would not by itself be sufficient to cause spinal damage in camels, and is therefore utterly harmless.


This post is my personal opinion, and is not written on behalf of the GNOME Foundation, its board of directors, nor anyone else.