On RMS—No More Coddling Idols and Celebs

At the Free Software Foundation’s (FSF) open source conference LibrePlanet 2021 there was a bit of a controversial coming out when Richard Stallman (RMS) announced that he was back on the board of the organization he founded after resigning from it and the FSF’s presidency in 2019. I’m trying to process this information productively and honestly I am struggling. I hear lots of paeans for paths of redemption or “not canceling over one faux pas” type responses. I hear lots of “just lets bury the hatchet” response too. I am so far very unsympathetic to those at this point though because I haven’t seen any attempts by RMS to seek actual redemption nor do I think this is “just one minor incident” that deserves being buried. For too long we’ve allowed our idols and celebrities way too large a divergence from acceptable behaviors we expect from everyone else. We hear countless stories of abusive, belligerent, and completely inappropriate behavior being at the very least tolerated if not implicitly or explicitly supported by those around them. For much of RMS’s history he got this exact treatment. The events of 2019 pushed everyone past the point of putting up with it any longer and at that point, finally, people stood up to him. In response he temporarily resigned and went into a communications black hole. What has come out the other side 1.5 years later though seems to be right where we left off though. It’s bad for FSF, bad for the free and open source (FOSS) community, and bad for our culture in general.

I’m going to start with a positive note on RMS before I get into my huge problems with what has gone on at FSF and in our industry around him. The man is the genius who was foundational to the formation of FOSS as we know it today. The concept of distributing source code, sharing source code, etc. long predates RMS founding GNU or the FSF. However those organizations crystallized a philosophy, they’d say politics but I choose philosophy, about the nature of software and the intellectual property around it. Would we have FOSS today if RMS getting pissed off about access to a lab printer’s code didn’t push him to found GNU and then FSF? Who can say what alternate timelines would have played out. RMS was never the entirety of the FOSS movement much less the sole force behind it. I imagine there was a zeitgeist among certain parts of the community that could have caused it to emerge in other ways. Regardless, the fact is he was foundational to those groups and a huge driver behind them. The early versions of the tool chains those groups developed were used to build a lot of software we use today. So even though I don’t think he is the person who single handedly gave us FOSS, GNU, and all the proceeds of the movement, the world owes him a huge amount of gratitude for his contributions to it. However gratitude is not the same as limitless dispensations for bad behaviors.

The bad behavior in question did not begin and end with a discussion forum exchange about an unrelated topic on a professional organization’s infrastructure. Yes that was the straw that broke the camel’s back but not the problem. It is more than the decades of reported problems of problematic interactions with female staff and colleagues, laid out in detail here . Either one of those things alone should have been enough to confront RMS on his problematic behavior decades ago and with consequences but it wasn’t. It was part of a larger level of completely inappropriate and unprofessional behavior directed at people all over the place, just a handful more examples laid out by Sam Hartman here . We can therefore dispense with trying to say it was an out of the blue overreaction to an out of context discussion forum, a point of view I vehemently disagree with though by the way. We can dispense with misogynistic talking down to women being overly sensitive about past behaviors and saying it’s all hearsay anyway, again a point of view I vehemently disagree with. We have these large patterns of behavior which have existed so pervasively and so consistently that it was all well known to the community.

“So why didn’t we do anything about it if it was a problem for so long?” People did do something about it. As Hartman noted FSF would have FSF board members/senior executives follow him around conferences doing damage control and limit inappropriate confrontations with junior staffers. You can read lots more stories about ways people had to avoid RMS, deal with fires he started etc. When you have such a destructive force in leadership of an organization it is best for the organization to deal with it directly. It doesn’t matter if the person is a founder or not. Apple kicked out Steve Jobs for his destructive tyrannical behavior. Bill Gates removed himself from Microsoft after he nearly pushed the company into a forced breakup at the hands of DOJ over his being too clever by half in applying monopolistic powers to crush competition. In perhaps the most constructive recent example most relevant to the FOSS community Linus Torvalds recognized some of his famous but counterproductive practices were a net negative. He applied introspection, taking a little break to get some third party perspective, and is now a far more effective leader of a far more effective organization. With RMS and FSF we see absolutely none of this and that is what is most problematic to me.

Humans have a history of letting idols and celebrities walk all over them. We make excuses for their bad behaviors at best and at worst foster such behaviors by indulging in the insanity or rationalizing why “well akshully it’s good”. The FSF board members at conferences following around babysitting is probably the best example of that in the RMS case. The FSF wasn’t alone in doing this with RMS. Everyone put up with it or avoided it for themselves. Perhaps that’s why it felt like whiplash to some people when the straw broke the camel’s back in 2019 with respect to RMS. For those who long suffered in silence it was neither rapid nor capricious.

So does that mean RMS can never be involved in anything ever again? Are we to indulge the “cancel culture” pearl clutchers and say that there is no path to redemption? No. While there are certainly instances of Twitter mobs unfairly going after people this isn’t it, not even remotely. As we saw with Torvalds, among others, there are plenty of paths of redemption. While paths to redemption do begin with genuine expressions of remorse and regret they don’t end there. We barely even have that initial step from RMS on just the discussion forum issue that brought everything to a head though. I would love to see an RMS that isn’t busy spraying cat piss everywhere, sucking down the open source movement with cleaning up his messes while he moves on to starting yet another mess, and who behaved like we expect every other member of our professional organizations to behave. There is no evidence that he grew towards that during his hiatus though that’s for sure. We unfortunately have been complicit in indulging his problematic behaviors for decades which probably contributes a lot to his response to all this. Fortunately our industry’s past complicity doesn’t mean that we have to continue doing so.

The FSF continuing to indulge in RMS’s behaviors that they and we would deem unacceptable if anyone else did them is unacceptable. They are their own organization and have the right to choose their path. I fear that if the negative end products of their thirty years of indulging this isn’t evident to them at this point I doubt it ever will be. We in the broader FOSS community though aren’t bound to FSF in any way. We don’t have to accept or tolerate RMS’s behavior or their continued acceptance/indulgence/fostering of it. Many of us didn’t accept it and actively avoided interacting with him over it. That’s better than nothing but I think it is really too low a bar for acceptability at this point. If you aren’t going to be involved with a presentation, a group, or a conference because of RMS’s involvement don’t suffer in silence. Instead let that be well known. Maybe then it will finally start penetrating. The good news is even if it doesn’t FSF and RMS are not the heart of the FOSS community they are but one of many actors in it. We can foster healthy productive and better FOSS without getting them involved.

I very much hope that RMS can have an evolution in his unprofessional and unacceptable behaviors. There is no reason why he couldn’t do that. In the mean time though I’m not going to engage in passive or active acceptance or coddling of it nor watch people do that without calling it out. This is house cleaning that should have happened a long time ago. We did RMS and the FOSS community a disservice by indulging it for so long. There is no time like the present to start correcting it.

PS Lastly being removed from an organization you founded when the organization leadership feels you are a net negative is not only not unprecedented it’s very common. It is so common that the present generation of Silicon Valley billionaires like Zuckerberg made sure to maintain controlling interest so that it could never happen to them.