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.

14 thoughts on “The Cause and the Effect

  1. Pingback: Philip Chimento shows how anyone who ‘dares’ defend RMS is now atta… | Dr. Roy Schestowitz (罗伊)

      • Agreed; as I posted on Roy’s blog. I think your post is totally appropriate =) It is also pleasing to see it – a healthy society is surely built of people respectfully disagreeing – and its really good to practice that (it is far from easy in hard cases). Hopefully we all bring a different perspective and agree & disagree on different topics with time. Anyhow – thank for your post.

  2. [Moderator’s note: removed a rant longer than the actual blog post about how Stallman was supposedly never given the opportunity to improve his behaviour]

    PS – I will not read or comment comments to my comments

  3. Many male nerds like RMS (and most probably Minsky too) have no sufficiently understanding of social topics.
    They need proper education. Otherwise they cause harm to other people (like we saw it).
    So if we want to stop this and keep high standards by not fighting each other, we have to teach nerds about social things (e.g. partnerships, what to do, what not to do, how to start them, how not to start them). And also warn them about manipulative persons like Epstein (there are plenty of them out there).
    I fear we have not enough talks in CS about social acceptable behaviour for preventing such things to happen and to cope with difficult people in a better way.

    PS: I can recommend the book: “how to make friends and influence people”. Despite its provocative title it tells in form of “tales” how to deal with social conflicts in a better way.

    • I disagree. There are plenty of resources out there that will help you gain an understanding of socially acceptable behaviour: including books like you suggested. It is everyone’s own responsibility to become a fully realized person who treats others fairly and respectfully, not the responsibility of their teachers or their CS department. (And computer science is not the only discipline that suffers from this.) It’s not like there’s something special about “male nerds” that renders them incapable of taking that responsibility.

  4. I think what leaves me a little uncomfortable is that I feel its hard to argue that RMS was forced to step down due to his years of bad behavior as opposed to a online barrage of somewhat misleading claims about where he stood on Epsteins behavior. So while I agree with your assessment that his behavior over many years made him stepping down a good thing and that ideally he should have been forced to step down over those a long time ago. However I do feel uncomfortable with the idea that I feel your putting forth here, that Michael is wrong to care about if the concrete charge and online outrage that came along with it was correct or not, because in the big picture him leaving was the right thing. Because that is the very definition of a lynch mob, where the end justifies the means.

    • Interesting, I had actually written a much longer post that responded to this point, among others, and then deleted most of it. So I do see what you are saying about the sensationalized headlines, and I do agree with you to some extent. Tech journalism these days is largely clickbait, and that’s concerning. Social media spreads outrage and division, and that’s also concerning. We can be concerned about those problems in our industry and our society, without affecting our judgement of Stallman, where we have had the opportunity to read Stallman’s actual words, including the entire context in which he said them, and the larger context of his behaviour over the past decades, and decide for ourselves.

      I don’t think it’s accurate to say he was forced to step down because of the misleading headlines. He was forced to step down because of crossing a line yet again; concurrently but separately, the tech press made some misleading headlines out of it. For that reason I also don’t think it’s accurate to say that the end was being used to justify the means.

      • Hi Philip, thanks for your thoughtful response; I’ll link it into my blog post with a little analysis. I’m also grateful for the chance to be (potentially) wrong in public, and participate in a public discussion without calls for censorship / public shaming. I think we are basically on the same page wrt. social media magnifying outrage. I’d love to develop ways to protect our communities from this – to avoid knee-jerk reactions – and come up with wise & considered ones instead (though it vital that justice deferred is not justice denied). No doubt there are mobs & outrage on all sides of the political spectrum – and a better process for handling them (than pre-emptive resignation) could be something good that can protect all of our (diverse) community members and leaders in the future. Interestingly, Neil’s approach of closing the discourse thread for 8 hours, then more hours, then days seems to provide a helpful template when fairly applied. I suspect time, and distance can help restore some objectivity. I’m also grateful that you’re (apparently) not deleting all comments that disagree with you here: that gives me hope for GNOME’s historic culture of tolerance of different viewpoints =) So – keep up the good work, Michael.

      • Thanks for the comment, and I was interested to read the addenda to your post.

        I don’t generally delete comments that disagree, but in case any transparency about the moderation process is necessary: on this post I have deleted two so far that were rude or insulting, and redacted the one you can read above where the poster wasn’t interested in a discussion.

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