Free Software and RMS
by James Fenn.
Recently, there has been a bit of an uptick in debate over racial and misogynistic issues in the GNU Project and Free Software Foundation (FSF). This has been partly spurred by Richard Stallman’s involvement in discussion about Marvin Minsky’s relationship with Jeffery Epstein.
(I’m not going to discuss Stallman’s actions or how they were harmful. That would bring up some risky topics that I don’t want to cover here, keeping in mind the audience that might be reading my posts. If you want evidence of this, you can easily find it elsewhere.)
RMS has since resigned from his positions at MIT CSAIL and the Free Software Foundation; by now, all this is old news. However, I still wanted to upload this post because it covers issues that I believe can apply more broadly to the rest of the community. Similar problems are present in much of the computer science industry, and it would be a mistake to ignore them.
Having conversed about this with many of my friends, and reading a lot of the points that others are making, I… well, frankly, I felt a bit guilty. I’ve had an idea of what “free software” is for quite a long time. I’ve seen it as a way to open up software - to make it available to people that might otherwise face the control of profit-biased companies. I saw it as a way to make my harmless little projects a step more inclusive, so that anyone - no matter how rich or white or heterosexual they are - could benefit from them, become involved with their development, and gain experience necessary to support themselves in this world. With this assumption, I had a great amount of respect for the creators of the free software movement because I thought that they shared the same values in creating an open community for all.
I feel that these are important standards to set, as this is the same way that I first started in the industry; the ability to hack software together, the freedom to see how other work is built, and the privilege to interact with a community of programmers doing the same thing. This community is something that I want everyone to feel happy to be a part of.
This is not a place for the opinions of Richard Stallman to influence. It’s not something that should be available for anyone to exploit in promoting oppressive views and excluding the marginalized members of the community. I don’t want to see the community’s work being taken advantage of in order to spread hate crime or violate our fundamental human rights.
To be clear, I’ve known about Stallman’s opinions for a long time. I’ve read his political notes and fallen down the rabbit hole of his website on more than a few occasions. I didn’t write about this publicly because I never felt that it was relevant to what I was doing, but upon reflection I realize that I was wrong. This is bigger than me and more important than my silly projects or childish ideals. If you fail to assert a view against something, then you effectively allow it to spread, and that isn’t something that I’m willing to do here. I am grateful to everyone that wrote about this problem and their experiences for spreading awareness and forcing me to think about its effect. This isn’t something that I talk about lightly, and I’m open to criticism of anything that I discuss here.
On to the point…
Free software isn’t everything.
It’s important, sure. People need to have trust in the software they use, and the FSF has gone a long way towards setting a standard for software to facilitate that, but it isn’t everything. I would prefer for all of my software to be proprietary, depending on closed-source frameworks and compilers with masses of privacy issues and no transparency whatsoever, than to be a part of the group that is defending the practices of people like Epstein.
The free software movement is an important philosophy that I still support, and I want to see it grow. But it isn’t worth more than people. It isn’t worth the price of discrimination and oppression of women and minorities that supporting RMS will inevitably cause. My genuine hope is that free software is more than this. I hope that it can overcome the influence of the bigotry at its core and continue to pursue its more honorable intentions, and although I have my doubts, I will continue to support that idea - because it’s not something that will go away easily. It isn’t something that makes sense to destroy; it’s something that needs to be changed.
The problems are so obvious.
There is nothing wrong with women. There is nothing wrong with girls in STEM. There are many women and many girls who, in spite of everything, love STEM-related disciplines. [Those disciplines] are filled to the brim with so, so many shitty men.
- Selam Jie Gano, “Remove Richard Stallman (and everyone else horrible in tech)”
The problem is that, by using his work, the FOSS community is implicitly furthering the influence of its creator. Stallman can say, for example, “Look at me! All of these people depend on me. Women are inferior!” - and that is immediately representing everyone that supports the free software movement.
Stallman didn’t just create free software or contribute to it; he himself became it. He was idolized as creator of everything good in software, which he in part propagated by forming the Church of Emacs and declaring himself a saint.
Why, exactly, was he allowed to behave this way? Because people in this scene have been enabling his behavior on the basis of “genius” for decades, and he’s never learned anything else.
- Jillian C. York, twitter.com
RMS might be important. His contributions to the free software movement were indeed significant, and he has formed a significant following of people that agree with his ideals. However, being technically adept is not an excuse to be a terrible person. The way that RMS acted - and the fact that others tolerated him for so long - likely drove many others away from the community, and that isn’t something that I want to support.
Free software isn’t RMS.
The purpose of free software is to permit anti-discriminatory distribution by definition. It was created to shift important software away from biased influence into a community that should be more inclusive to people who are less represented in society. It’s designed to give other people a say in the software they use and depend on. The free / open source movement is one that I consider to inherently support individuals, but it takes away from that goal when an organization like the FSF has failed to advocate for the marginalized side of the community for such a long time.
We got amazing people laying out how the visible vanguards of movements are actively harming people in the space (if not directly then by endorsement and support of those who do - it’s called being an accomplice). I’m thinking that it’s nigh time that we actually give up on things of the GNU. Our endorsement and support is going to further give them a head count that, in this space, is implicit power. And I refuse to give them that knowing that this behavior has been going on for more than a decade.
- Jacky Alciné, “The Future of the Intersection of PoC and F/LOSS”
At this point it would be a little hypocritical to base my ideals on Stallman’s work. How can I criticize Joi Ito for accepting donations from Epstein when I’m basing all of my ethical ideals on work that RMS did for free? It may be substantially less significant, but it bears justification from the community as a whole that accepts his work as their own. The conclusion that I’ve come to is that an amount of hypocrisy here is inevitable. We can reasonably minimize that, but at the end of the day, his work is free software. There’s no way to differentiate between the ideas of free software that he had and the idea of free software that the community has today - because, on the surface, they’re mostly the same thing.
That said, ideas are bigger than people. Linking an idea to a single person is a point of failure. People fail; RMS failed - but I don’t think that RMS is the embodiment of free software. Free software isn’t defined by him, nor is it defined by the FSF. It is fundamentally an idea of the community, and one that can be redefined by it as well.
My ideals are fairly grandiose, and I’m not one to judge whether I’ve even come close achieving them - but even with the limited amount of work that I’ve done in this community, I’ve still had an impact. Regardless of the truth, I’d like to think that my thoughts are relevant and that they influence people around me, and as presumptuous as it would be to state that I have made any change in the grand scheme of things, it would be shallow and foolish to assume that my - anyone’s - actions have not had any effect.
I really admire you and your work, to the point that it kind of influenced my career path.
Well anyway, do you have any advice for someone who’s struggling with programming?
Everyone’s work has an influence on someone else in some way - that point is often clouded behind negative criticisms (it’s far easier to criticize an issue than congratulate good effort) or just a plain disconnect from the people you benefit, but it goes for everyone, no matter how insignificant your work seems or how small your following is.
The important point here is that, in the software industry, the product of your work often isn’t the most important thing to be worried about. Success is not an objective measurement, and just because code is being improved doesn’t mean it’s getting better. As we continue to build software, it is important to take the effect that it has on different people and communities into consideration. Blindly creating tools for anyone to take advantage of can do as much damage as good if it ends up in the wrong hands.
This applies to communities as well. Don’t judge someone’s character by their technical ability. Don’t look for “10x engineers” (related: 1x.engineer - the exact opposite). So-called “soft skills” matter just as much as experience. Communication, inclusion, awareness of social issues are things that often fail to permeate the social bubble that software creators usually find themselves inside. Don’t gatekeep the community with a developer celebrity that doesn’t deserve their influence. Work to make it more inclusive to people that aren’t able to represent themselves as freely; stop catering to “most people” and focus on those that need it most.