Richard Stallman (RMS) is a famous hacker who wrote Emacs and founded the Free Software Foundation and the GNU project. He is an important figure in the history of free software. He is also someone whose behaviour towards women has been appalling and who believed, for a long time, that sex with children was not harmful: he is someone who should have no place in the present or future of free software, at all. And yet he is vociferously defended by a significant number of free software advocates: this says exactly what you think about them.
[What follows is wrong in some important ways: please see this article which has both corrections and an apology.]
There are many well-attested examples of RMS’s grotesque attitudes to women1. Here is an example from his own blog in June 2006 (updated April 2018), of his attitude to something else:
I am skeptical of the claim that voluntarily [sic] pedophilia harms children.
Yes, you are reading that correctly: RMS thought, in 2006 (he was 53), that adults having sex with children was OK, so long as it was, you know, ‘voluntary’: so long as the children consented. Because children, in his view at the time, could consent to sex.
In other words, in 2006 (and for many years following that) RMS was someone who did not understand, even slightly, what it means to be able to consent to sex (or who understood but did not care). How do you think he treated women?
Thirteen years later, on 14th September 2019 and at the age of 66, he retracted this:
Many years ago I posted that I could not see anything wrong about sex between an adult and a child, if the child accepted it.
Through personal conversations in recent years, I’ve learned to understand how sex with a child can harm per [sic2] psychologically. This changed my mind about the matter: I think adults should not do that. I am grateful for the conversations that enabled me to understand why.
If we assume that he is writing in good faith (and I have no reason to believe otherwise), then I think there is only one conclusion to draw from this: something is badly wrong with his mind which makes it extremely hard for him to understand notions such as consent, and probably other things as well. Perhaps he is someone who deserves sympathy, not contempt. But, like other people who suffer from such problems, he needs to be kept out of situations where he can do harm.
Unfortunately he is not being kept out of such situations: rather he is being supported and enabled by a group of acolytes, for their own reasons which are certainly not good ones.
I’ve known since the early 1990s that cooperation with RMS was impossible, because I was a bystander on the right mailing lists and I saw the mail exchanges3. I had no idea, at all, about this stuff (which is unforgivable: I should have known, even though I left the cult in about 1994). As I said above, almost certainly he is ill rather than evil: there is simply something which does not work properly in his mind which makes him unable to understand these things. If this is true then it is very sad for him. However like other similar people he is still a danger to those around him: a man who finds it hard to understand that sex with children is wrong should be nowhere near any kind of leadership position, in anything, and should never have been so.
But, of course, instead of that, his acolytes and fanboys have built an elaborate halfwit cargo cult around him for more than 30 years. Many of them are now so blinded by the cult that they have made that they simply can no longer see, if they could ever see, that the little tinpot god they have built it around is damaged, if not evil. And so they will drink the kool-aid and end up, with the other cult members, still praising the idiot toy god they made even as the building burns around them4.
And I have some limited sympathy for them, as I have some provisional sympathy for him, as I have sympathy for other damaged people. But the cult built around him does great harm and RMS directly does great harm, and it needs to stop. It needed to stop 30 years ago but it needs to stop even more now.
On the other hand I don’t have sympathy for the many others: the people whose minds have not been damaged by the cult, the people who think that RMS’s attitudes are just fine nonetheless. The people who knowingly cheer on this damaged human being because he represents their views: their views towards women and perhaps their views towards children too. The people who think that the women and other people who are offended by the grotesque attitudes of RMS, and of many others in the free software community, are ‘radfems’. If you are one of those people then fuck you: fuck all of you.
Since writing the first version of this post, I’ve exchanged email with a friend of mine who describes having been ‘accosted’ by him at an event some time ago. Her native language is not English and she pretty clearly did not want to discuss it further, but I don’t believe she meant she was physically assaulted but rather that she was approached inappropriately. ↩
‘Per’ seems to be a third-person-neutral pronoun used by people who don’t understand that ‘they’ has been used that way for hundreds of years in English. ↩
And I’m a Lisp hacker: I have low standards for cooperation. (What’s the difference between a Lisp hacker and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.) ↩
Yes, I know I’m mixing my cults here. ↩