Justice for Dr. Richard Matthew Stallman
#tolerance #rms #freesoftware #gnu #healingcommunities #restoretruth #reinstallrms #freethought

Table of Contents

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1 Introduction

Dr. Richard Stallman speaking into a microphone

Figure 1: Dr. Richard Stallman talking in Athens for “A Free Digital Society” (photograph by Wikimedia Commons, used under CC-BY-SA-4.0), scaled from the original)

Dr. Richard Matthew Stallman (born 16 March 1953), known by his initials rms (occasionally uppercase RMS) is an American computer scientist, programmer, philosopher, free/libre software movement activist and ethical hacker. He pioneered the campaign for software to be distributed in such manner that its users receive the fundamental freedoms to use, study, distribute, and modify it. Software that respects these four freedoms is termed free software (or libre software).

Stallman launched the momentous GNU project (often called Linux1), founded the FSF, developed GCC, GDB and the extensible text editor GNU Emacs. For the development of GCC and Emacs he won the ACM Software System Award and the ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award, respectively.

By writing the GPL, Stallman pioneered the concept of copyleft, which ensures fundamental freedoms to the end users of software and other creative and intellectual works.

Stallman employed his great skills to campaign for software freedom and digital rights (especially privacy) and developed free/libre software while living a modest life, when his computer-science peers accumulated enormous wealth. He has been preaching software freedom and digital rights since the early 1970s and strictly adheres to this moral code2.

Since at least September 2019, Richard Stallman has been the object of an Internet defamatory campaign that forced him to resign from his position at MIT and even from the FSF that he founded and led—he resigned as President and as member of the board of directors3. On the second day (March 21) of LibrePlanet 2021, 18 months after his resignation, Stallman announced he was back on the FSF board of directors (not as President). This has reignited the controversy.

The campaign is motivated by mischaracterizations, disproportionality and intolerance.

2 Mischaracterizations

On September 2019, an email message was sent to an MIT mailing list calling for a protest regarding donations Jeffrey Epstein4 made to the university3. Stallman then objected to wording used to describe the protest online. He is known for insisting on terminological correctness6. His objection was that his deceased friend Marvin Minsky7 should not be accused of having sexually assaulted one of Epstein’s victims. Stallman argued that the term sexual assault facilitated accusation inflation, and that criticism should use more precise terms8.

The email thread was mischaracterized, leaked to the press and the following two false accusations were made against Stallman:

2.1 Stallman as an Epstein supporter

At least two large websites published articles accusing Stallman of defending Epstein. The websites presented no cogent argument for the accusation, only severe misquotations. In truth, on April 2019 he had called Epstein a “serial rapist”3 who got an “extremely lenient” plea deal; indeed, “so lenient that it was illegal.” Stallman then wondered “whether this makes it possible to resentence him to a longer prison term.”

2.2 Stallman as a victim blamer

Many large websites published articles accusing Stallman of arguing that the Epstein victim was “entirely willing”, in a grave failure of reading comprehension.

In truth, regarding Virginia Giuffre (the Epstein victim regarding whom Stallman wrote), he wrote the “most plausible scenario” was that “she presented herself to him [Marvin Minsky] as entirely willing” [my emphasis] even when actually she was under coercion from Epstein, because the trafficker “had every reason to tell her to conceal that”3. Then in his second email from that same discussion, Stallman wrote “given the circumstances, that implies she was coerced by Epstein” [my emphasis]. A few paragraphs later he reiterated3:

We know that Giuffre was being coerced into sex—by Epstein. She was being harmed. But the details do affect whether, and to what extent, Minsky was responsible for that.

[my emphasis]

Therefore, Stallman wrote repeatedly that the girl was a victim of coerced sex. He just did not see evidence that Marvin Minsky knew about the coercion. Stallman presumed Minsky not to have been responsible. He did not presume the victim to have been actually willing.

2.2.1 Poor understanding of sexual relationship power dynamics

Was Stallman’s hypothesis realistic? A man of Minsky’s age could have suspected something was wrong about that situation, even if the young woman tried to conceal the coercion, and even at that time—before Epstein’s sexual atrocities became publicly known. But then, the plausible accusation against Stallman would be of lacking reasonable understanding of sexual relationship power dynamics and unintentionally making insensitive and ill-timed remarks that could affect sexual crime victims. He did not argue that the Epstein victim was actually “entirely willing”.

3 Political opinions on sex and abortion on his personal website

Part of the story is that Stallman’s personal website (which carries his personal opinions and is clearly separated from FSF, GNU and MIT) has some political opinions on sex, abortion and related subjects that are widely seen as problematic. For example, in a note from 2003, he wrote, “I think that everyone age 14 or above ought to take part in sex, though not indiscriminately. (Some people are ready earlier.)” In 2006, he expressed skepticism about the claim that “voluntarily pedophilia” harmed children.

I oppose several of Stallman’s opinions on sex, abortion and related subjects; some of them I oppose strongly (see section 7). However, through personal conversations in recent years, Stallman changed his mind and published the retraction of his previous opinions on tolerance of sex between adults and children. There is evidence that he had already changed his mind by 30 June 2016. On that date, a Wikipedia editor who had written to Stallman informed that, according to his response, his views had already changed significantly.

Detractors have also judged Stallman’s suggestion for better gender-neutral pronouns as transphobic. I really don’t see transphobia in it. His suggestion is clearly gender-neutral, and his opponents don’t specify the problem with it other than asserting it is incorrect.

Stallman disagrees only on how best to change language to be more gender-neutral, but he agrees it is necessary. He clearly supports gender-neutrality and, in fact, dedicates time and effort. His disagreement on how best to do it is consistent with his known demand for terminological correctness and precision.6 He frequently writes in defense of the transgender movement.9 Leah Rowe, the transgender leader of Libreboot, strongly supports Stallman.

4 Political opinion on non-forcible sex with a 17-year-old

One of Stallman’s leaked 2019 emails did still suggest that non-forcible sex between an adult and a 17-year-old should not be equated with “rape”. When judging that opinion, take into account the world context, and that Stallman was arguing for terminological correctness.

For context, look at Europe. As the BBC stated on March 2018, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Portugal set the age of consent at 14 and nowhere in Europe is it over 17. In this context, while I oppose sex with children or young teenagers, I judge as perfectly acceptable the political opinion10 that 17 years old should be enough to legally consent to sex.

I emphasize the word legally. Legality, morality and social acceptability are different concepts. One can judge casual sex between an old man and a 17-year-old girl to be gravely immoral but not constitute a crime.

And even people who support 18 as the legal age of consent could agree that non-forcible sex with a 17-year-old (legal in all of Europe) is significantly different and much less grave than forced sex. Therefore, it should be described with a specific term and not simply “rape”—the term that Stallman objected to. He is known for insisting on terminological correctness, which is especially important when accusing someone of a grave crime. If someone is accused of doing X, it is unjust to lead others to think of the accusation as Y, when Y is significantly different and much worse than X.

5 Discomfort to women

Stallman’s detractors have publicized accounts of women that felt uncomfortable with him. Some of those accounts are old jokes and mischaracterizations; others have been addressed.

Stallman’s detractors accuse him of misogyny. However, considering everything in context and good faith, the overall picture is of an eccentric man with poor social skill but not misogyny—and, after years of effort, even his social skill has improved.

6 Perfect storm

There is a strong push to combat certain forms of marginalization such as the objectification of women, such as sexual harassment and sex trafficking, including MIT’s apparent complicity with the crimes of Epstein, as well as systemic racism. It is a good idea to fight against these injustices and in fact it should have been done much earlier. However, it creates strong emotions that can harm innocent people or inflict disproportionate punishment on those who are accused of misconduct. It is wise to take care against that danger.

True, Stallman has at times expressed some controversial opinions on sensitive issues, often as a result of questioning the status quo. Does that justify the current hate fest?

7 Tolerance and open mindedness

I do not ask the reader to agree with every one of Stallman’s opinions. In fact, I am a married, orthodox, staunch Catholic who supports chastity and Christian morality—within a coherent and reasonably tolerant worldview inspired by the phenomenal Pope Francis. I oppose several of Stallman’s views on sex, abortion and related subjects; some of them I strongly oppose.

Yet, I support tolerance and open mindedness—“test everything and hold on to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). One learns a lot from Stallman’s views on civil liberties, privacy, environmentalism, economic and social justice and politics, especially software freedom and digital rights. This is analogous to how I oppose the intolerance and unjust violence of the French Revolution but support due separation of Church and State and the metric system.

7.1 Consequences of speech and taboo

It is often argued that “freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences”. According to that argument, freedom of speech only bars State censorship, while individuals and private organizations can punish taboo speech at will.

Up to a point, that argument is valid. The State’s great coercive power must be carefully limited, while private individuals and organizations have freedom of association. Indeed, individuals and organizations do not freely choose whether to be under the State’s jurisdiction and, therefore, society faces the great danger of the State becoming oppressive and trampling over rights and liberties. Even elected governments can become oppressive, because of dangers such as the tyranny of the majority. On the other hand, people choose whether to associate with (other) individuals and private organizations. If an individual or private organization becomes oppressive, it can be avoided. Therefore, the argument goes, individuals and private organizations can arbitrarily punish unwanted behavior and even taboo speech with actions such as boycotts and pressure to resign.

That is true, but only up to a point. A free, liberal society needs not only limits to State coercion, but also a prevailing culture of tolerance. Social exclusion is a great power and, if exerted unjustly, can cause great injustice. Lawmakers have even found it necessary to criminalize some forms of unjust social exclusion by individuals and private organizations. For example, American law forbids certain forms of discriminatory social exclusion concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing.

While some forms of unjust social exclusion have already been criminalized, it is naive to think that intolerant, disproportional or unwise social exclusion is a solved problem. The belief that all legally-permitted forms of shunning are just rests on the assumption that the State has already criminalized all the unjust ones. The State, however, cannot criminalize every error—if it did, it would be totalitarian. For justice and coherence, I do not campaign for all Stallman’s detractors to be punished11. Instead, I counter their bad (unwise and illiberal) campaign with topical arguments.

Social exclusion based on personal political opinions outside (and unrelated to) the person’s job is often counterproductive to a free society. Generally speaking, society must counter unwanted opinions with topical arguments or (when appropriate) harsh rebukes. Campaigns to severely punish the speaker should be reserved for a few delineated cases such as fascism apologetics or denigration of subordinates on the basis of sex, race or sexual orientation by a holder of institutional power.

If society gets used to severely punishing taboo political opinions unrelated to the speaker’s job—and even after he retracted the most shocking one—then what happens when, on a given subject, orthodoxy happens to be wrong? How can we have an honest debate, seek Truth, and effect social reform? What happened to freedom of inquiry?

I am not a free speech absolutist, but I do understand censorship—especially of political, philosophical or religious ideas—as a violent act (even if done by civil society) with serious long-term consequences. Complaints must be heard.

Indeed, according to Suzanne Nossel (CEO of PEN America and former executive director of Amnesty International USA), calling on institutions to restrict speech empowers them and “they will, on balance, deploy that prerogative self-servingly to suppress critics.” She adds12:

Reflexive demands to punish errant speech discourage people from engaging in the kinds of dissent and deliberation that keep a society dynamic and prevent rigid orthodoxies from hardening. […] Throughout U.S. history and around the world in places such as China, Turkey and Iran, it is dissidents, minorities and government critics who have been most vulnerable absent robust free speech protections.

7.2 Who opposes the censorship of political correctness and cancel culture

Some people smear the demand for free speech as a “racist dog whistle”. Yascha Mounk in the Atlantic refuted that hypothesis 13, 2 via a study based on a nationally representative poll with 8,000 respondents, 30 one-hour interviews, and six focus groups conducted from December 2017 to September 2018. It found that cancel culture activists, while extremely loud, are a small minority. Indeed, 80% of all respondents, and 79% of those under age 24, believed that “political correctness is a problem in our country.”

Among white respondents, 79% shared that sentiment. It was Asians (82%), Hispanics (87%), and American Indians (88%) who were most likely to oppose political correctness. It was also opposed by 75% of African-Americans. That means a strong majority of the intended beneficiaries of political correctness actually understand it as a problem; and that is only 4 percentage points below the 79% of whites.

At the same time, 82% of Americans (and I) judged hate speech as a problem. Therefore, the statistics suggest that most Americans shared the nuanced view of Nadine Strossen—the feminist, law professor and civil rights activist who was the first female President of the ACLU—that (real or apparent) hate speech should be fought with speech, not censorship2.

8 Fair and proportional character assessment

I also do not ask the reader to overlook Stallman’s errors—that is, those that are real and corroborated, since the Internet defamatory campaign generated or amplified lots of hearsay, gossip and half-truths, particularly in social networks. However, the assessment of a person’s character ought to be based on accurate interpretation of contextualized solid evidence. For one example, the defamatory campaign features the photo of a sign on his MIT CSAIL office door saying “RICHARD STALLMAN—KNIGHT FOR JUSTICE (ALSO: HOT LADIES)”. It turns out that someone else wrote that as a joke and Stallman removed it, but not before someone took a photo.14

The defamatory campaign exaggerates his errors, lends credit and disseminates false and uncorroborated accusations (even jokes) and overlooks favorable evidence, testimony and circumstances. Even a jury trial (with due process) can yield an unjust verdict if contaminated by a campaign of character assassination. This is even more intense when there is no due process, only trial by media.

Considering solid evidence in context, is it proportionate to permanently remove Stallman from all positions of leadership, as his detractors demand? Stallman has not forced himself on anyone. Asking a woman out is normal for a single man. His error might have been to ask women out in a manner that unintentionally made them uncomfortable, and expressing, on his personal website, controversial political opinions on subjects that are not his forte—and he retracted the most shocking one.

In response he has already been cruelly humiliated on the Internet, lost his MIT position, lost the FSF presidency and spent 18 months outside the board of directors. Does he still need to be permanently removed even from the board, as his detractors demand? Has not he been through enough? What happened to proportionality? A person who errs must be permanently excluded from the movement that they themselves founded?

The social network hate fest is so strong that some people there demanded even Stallman’s associates at the FSF—and people who defend him—to get the same fate. This was a common feature in the Middle Ages—those who defend a target become targets themselves.

If you believe Richard Stallman should be treated fairly, then sign the petition An open letter in support of Richard M. Stallman | An open letter in support of RMS. Also spread the word: share this article or share https://stallmansupport.org/.

9 See also

10 Help wanted

This cause needs help—publicity, translation (I can help with Org Mode markup), SEO tips, criticism, textual improvements. Even just sharing (please share on many social networks) is help.

For sharing on Mastodon, diaspora*, GNU Social and Friendica, I recommend simply sharing/boosting my existing posts there (see below for my profiles). If you have a Twitter account, you can retweet this tweet. For other social networks I have provided example post, toot (≤ 500 characters) and tweet (≤ 280 characters). The post is in Markdown; to use it, please get the Markdown source code I provided and preview in the target social network—if it lacks Markdown support, then you could fix the formatting (I can help). Another simple and effective contribution is adding https://stallmansupport.org to you email signature, social media profiles, etc.

One may reach me via XMPP/Jabber, email (username “jorge+git” at the domain disroot DOT o r g), Mastodon (@Jorge@mamot.fr), diaspora* (jorgemorais@diaspora-fr.org), GNU Social (jorge@bluex.im) and Friendica (jorge@squeet.me). I also welcome issues, patches, merge requests17 and tips.

11 Final words

Please tolerate English mistakes (feedback highly welcome!)—I am Brazilian and English is my second language. By the way, the current President of Brazil disrespects the sanctity of life, science, blacks, indigenous Brazilians, leftists, women and minorities. He did not have my vote.

11.1 Attribution and copyleft

I based this essay on:

The Richard Stallman picture is from Wikimedia Commons (scaled from the original).

Terms of Use: I publish this essay under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license (CC BY-SA 4.0). The code and configuration files I wrote are under the GNU General Public License, version 3 or later (GPL-3.0-or-later). Included files that are unmodified or trivially modified (often to add REUSE and LibreJS comments) are under the upstream license—all compatible with GPL-3.0—including textlint-rule-terminology--Jorge_terms.json, trivially modified from MIT-licensed upstream. I believe the quotes from stallman.org and the information from news articles and posts are covered by fair use.

Footnotes:

1

GNU is a fully free/libre operating system (OS) that lacks a finished kernel. It is usually used together with the kernel Linux, forming the complete GNU+Linux OS. GNU+Linux is often inaccurately called Linux.

2

#Cancel We The Web (wetheweb.info, published 11 May 2020, updated 4 Jun 2020)

4

Jeffrey Edward Epstein (20 January 1953 – 10 August 2019), a billionaire trafficker of women (many underage) for sex. He developed an elite social circle and procured women and underage girls who were then sexually abused by him and some of these contacts. He eluded serious justice for many years.5

7

Marvin Lee Minsky (9 August 1927 – 24 January 2016), a pioneer of artificial intelligence and friend of Stallman. The first message in the thread accuses Minsky of sexually assaulting one of Epstein’s victims. Background and discussion can be found at In Support of Richard Stallman - Explaining the Events that Led to Richard Stallman’s Resignation - Background.

8

He had argued that before—see the entry for sexual assault in the Anti-Glossary of his personal website.

10

I have no conviction on the merit—whether 17 years should be old enough— because I have not studied the applicable theories, legal doctrine, legislation and jurisprudence. My point is that arguing in that direction should be allowed.

11

In the case of those professional journalists who misrepresented Stallman’s words in such egregious manner that it is hard to believe the mistakes were honest, a lawsuit may be reasonable. In many jurisdictions, writing lies to expose a person to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule, for profit (outrage clicks), is indictable. I am not a lawyer though.

17

The repository is https://gitlab.com/jorgemorais/justice-for-rms. If you do not have an account on gitlab.com and cannot create one because of the regrettable reCAPTCHA proprietary JavaScript that is currently required, then you can still send patches or suggestions via email or free social networks (section 10). I take suggestions of another more ethical (software freedom) hosting provider. It should be reasonably inexpensive—the Brazilian Real is severely undervalued against the US Dollar and the Euro.

Author: Jorge P. de Morais Neto

Created: 2021-04-26 seg 10:33

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