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A Critique of the Open Letter Calling for the Removal of RMS

Hacker News - Wed Apr 7 08:04

On March 21, Richard M. Stallman (RMS) announced that he is on the Free Software Foundation (FSF) board of directors again after having resigned in September 2019. Two days later, an open letter condemning RMS as misogynist, ableist, transphobic, intolerant, bigoted, hateful, and dangerous was published. The letter demands Stallman’s removal from all leadership positions as well as the removal of the entire board of the FSF for enabling such a person.

I will not make an argument either for or against RMS. Those who know RMS personally are in a better position to do that. I will only argue that the open letter is misleading, divisive, and meant to whip up a mob. I think a good argument against RMS can be made, but the authors of the letter instead chose to incite as much outrage as possible at the cost of honesty and nuance.

Many of the letter’s signatories tell personal stories of RMS being arrogant, insensitive, presumptuous, or inappropriate, and have concluded that RMS is unsuitable as a leader or spokesperson. This is a perfectly justifiable stance to take—especially for those that experienced or observed misbehavior themselves. Yet, the letter focuses on what RMS has said rather than done, and makes accusations that are much more grave.

This hardly seems like an accident. The goal is to have as many people as possible—including those that never interacted with RMS—be outraged and sign the letter, a strategy that seems to have worked rather well. It surely also animated some people that dislike this dynamic to come out in support of RMS.

The letter’s appendix correctly quotes RMS saying “the most plausible scenario is that [Virginia Giuffre] presented herself to [Marvin Minsky] as entirely willing”, but then changes “presented” to “being” when referencing this quote three sentences later. That same sentence contains a direct quotation that is nowhere to be found in the source we’re given. The appendix continues with a parenthetical granting that “several news reports misrepresented Stallman’s position while discussing allegations against Minsky”, but then asserts that “Stallman has previously expressed opinions that were consistent with the inaccurate portrayal.” No source is given this time. On the other hand, the appendix continues to link one of the misrepresentative news reports.

Let’s consider the evidence for RMS being transphobic. This is thin ice. The primary author of the open letter, Molly de Blanc, writes on her personal blog:

There is no space to argue over whether a comment was transphobic – if it hurt a trans person then it is transphobic and it is unacceptable.
1028 Words on Free Software

As an aside, I highly recommend reading that blog post in full. Echoes of its world view are present throughout the open letter.

So what makes RMS transphobic? He proposes and uses a set of singular, gender-neutral pronouns other than “they”, “their”, and “theirs”.1

One transgender person called the proposal “idiotic”, but considers “[c]alling RMS a transphobe […] an insult to people who suffer from real transphobia.”2 I am also told of at least one non-binary transgender person that does agree with the open letter’s assertion that Stallman’s proposal is, in fact, “poorly disguised transphobia”.3 I’m tempted to err on the side of assuming good intentions here. To me this looks like Stallman’s typical willingness to die on strange, idiosyncratic hills. You can have your own opinion. Or maybe you can’t. Remember, there “is no space to argue over whether a comment was transphobic”.

The accusation of ableism seems to primarily hinge on a highly insensitive note RMS added to his website in October 2016, but completely rewrote a few months later. Presumably someone told RMS about the problems with his original note. The open letter’s appendix uses recent web.archive.org links throughout and gives no indication that this particular link is an outdated capture from 2016. Here’s the rewritten note:

A noninvasive test for Down’s syndrome eliminates the small risk of the old test. This might lead more women to get tested, and abort fetuses that have Down’s syndrome.

According to Wikipedia, Down’s syndrome is a combination of many kinds of medical misfortune. Thus, when carrying a fetus that is likely to have Down’s syndrome, I think the right course of action for the woman is to terminate the pregnancy.

That choice does right by the potential children that would otherwise likely be born with grave medical problems and disabilities. As humans, they are entitled to the capacity that is normal for human beings. I don’t advocate making rules about the matter, but I think that doing right by your children includes not intentionally starting them out with less than that.

When children with Down’s syndrome are born, that’s a different situation. They are human beings and I think they deserve the best possible care.

RMS has (for some reason) tens of thousands of political notes on his website ready to be cherry-picked, and yet that wasn’t enough for the authors of the open letter and they turned to an outdated web.archive.org capture from 2016. And then they didn’t bother to inform the readers of this in any way.

Suggesting that RMS is intolerant is strange. If anything, he seems to be too tolerant. Implying that RMS is hateful is just ridiculous.

I only looked into some of the open letter’s contents in depth and can’t comment on the rest. Maybe the rest is completely fair. Martin Tournoij wrote a better and more thorough commentary of the open letter than I can. I do wonder how many people looked into the accusations before signing the letter, though. One of the original signatories told me that, “from a practical perspective, transphobe or no, [RMS] needs to go”4 and that “regardless of exactly how ableist he is, he can’t be a leader of an organization”.5 Perhaps that’s true, but it isn’t fair. Accusations like ableism and transphobia are front and center in the open letter and likely convinced more than a handful of people to add their signature.

I’ll leave you with three more bits of evidence that things are more complex than the open letter would have you believe:

  1. A competing letter in support of RMS exists and has accumulated considerably more signatures than the letter condemning RMS.
  2. In response someone created a Chrome extension that marks repositories owned by a signatory of this support letter with red text on GitHub.
  3. The announcement of this extension was welcomed with 394 likes on Twitter.6