Recently I wrote two articles about Richard Stallman (RMS) and the Free Software Foundation (FSF). Someone who is autistic wrote to me and pointed out some unfortunate implications of what I wrote, which were both wrong and offensive to neurodivergent people: I am sorry for that. The remainder of this article is an attempt to correct those mistakes.
The things I wrote
From the first article, with elisions indicated as ’[…]’ and emphasis added.
[…] 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.
[…] 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.
From the second article.
It seems likely that RMS himself is ill, or at least not neurotypical, rather than malevolant: he almost certainly is someone who really finds it very hard to understand that paedophilia is abhorrent, for instance. And like most people, he wants sex, but unlike most people he fails to understand that the way to get it is not to repeatedly harass women. If so, he is clearly someone who deserves sympathy and understanding. But he also should not be in a position where he has any kind of power over people: after all, psychopaths are also people who are ill, or not neurotypical in a different way, and you definitely don’t want psychopaths in positions of power or responsibility.
I have generally assumed that no-one reads any of these articles other than me: I write them only because I have to write, and I’d like it to be possible for other people to read some of what I write. So I’m often a bit casual: that doesn’t make it any better.
A story of two cats
I have a small young cat: I don’t know his background, but it seems likely he was taken somewhere far from his home by whoever had him previously and abandoned there, when he inconveniently stopped being a kitten. Probably most of his previous dealings with other cats were either with his siblings or his mother and what he likes to do is to play in the fierce way that kittens do with each other. He does not mean harm – he bites only very gently and does not really scratch – but he plays the only way he knows how to play.
I also have a much older, much larger, cat who is in middle age and likes the things cats in middle age like: to sleep, to sit on people, to spend his nights outside in the summer and by the stove in winter. He still remembers playing but mostly it is now in his past.
And the young cat worships the older cat and wants to play with him, and the older cat does not like this as he is old and set in his ways. But the older cat is also polite: he understands that the young cat lives here, and he doesn’t want to make the sort of strong point which the young cat would remember and which might involve bits missing from his ears. So he growls and bats at the young cat but goes no further than that. And we chastise the young cat and explain he should not be doing this, unless, occasionally, the older cat wants to play.
And the young cat finds this hard to understand: he is desperate to play but the cat he worships won’t, usually, play with him, but also, being polite, won’t say this in strong enough terms. It is hard for him.
But he is learning: he learned very quickly that when the older cat was eating or drinking no playing was to be done; he has learned that if he is well-behaved outside the older cat will take him to interesting places; he has learned that when the older cat is sitting on someone he is not to play. And in due course he will learn all the rules around playing with the older cat, and they will live comfortably together.
Three mistakes, and some more mistakes
The young cat is learning what the rules are, even though the rules are in vigorous disagreement with his instincts. And he’s a cat. In what I wrote about RMS quoted above I have implied that non-neurotypical people are less able to learn than a cat: this is just grotesquely insulting to neurodivergent people. Neurodivergent people may not, for instance, get various behavioural clues when approaching someone in whom they are sexually / romantically interested, but they certainly will understand when the person says the approach is unwelcome, and they also certainly will learn how to negotiate this sort of encounter: to imply otherwise is wrong, offensive, and very stupid on my part.
And a consequence of this first mistake is that I said that neurodivergent people should not be allowed to have positions of power over people. That’s wrong. Neurodivergent people, as anyone else, might not want to take such positions but, since they can learn there is no reason to think that they would be any worse at them than anyone else, and in fact they might well be better, since their understanding may be more conscious. Again, I was both wrong and stupid to say this, and it’s an offensive view.
The third mistake is that I implied that neurodivergent people are ill: that’s wrong in a horrible way. They’re not ill, they’re just not neurotypical. Saying neurodivergent people are ill is like saying people who have skin of the ‘wrong’ colour are ill, and just as offensive. Wrong, stupid and offensive, again.
And finally I have, in part, conflated neurodivergent people with psychopaths1, which is wrong. And then, of course, I’ve gone on to assume that psychopaths also can’t learn and as a result should never be in positions of power over other people. But psychopaths can learn if they choose to, and if they do learn then there’s no strong reason why they should not be in positions of power.
All of these mistakes were unintentional, but that doesn’t excuse them: I should have thought more carefully before writing. I’m sorry.
Where this leads
The underlying reason I made these mistakes is that I didn’t want to think of RMS as a bad person. To do that I invented this fantasy that he was not bad, but simply, by virtue of his assumed neurodivergence, could not learn that his behaviour was wrong. And that does not fly: RMS is a human being and could learn if he chose to. He hasn’t learned because he is, in fact, a bad person.
He may or may not be be neurodivergent but, without doubt, Richard Stallman is a bad person and the people who support him are also bad people2.
Caring and not caring
The person who picked me up on this, and who has read this article, wrote ‘I’m often not very good at expressing myself’. But they also wrote this:
Some people have trouble figuring out how people feel, but there is no neurological condition that makes it impossible to care how people feel.
This is, simply, the most beautiful description I can imagine of what I had not understood. So, thank you.
By ‘neurodivergent’ I mean, I think, ‘autistic spectrum’: I think it’s at least possible to argue that psychopaths & sociopaths are also not neurotypical, but that’s not what I mean here. The language I’m using may be incorrect, and if that’s the case I’ll correct it. ↩
It is a common excuse to say that ‘I supported this bad person, but I am not myself a bad person’. Yes, yes you are: if you vote for a racist who you know is a racist then you are a racist, and if you support a man who repeatedly harasses women, then you are someone who thinks that this behaviour is acceptable, and you are therefore an awful human being. ↩