As a lawyer/attorney I have some kind of professional bias towards always trying to see things in the best possible light, even (and specially) the kind of things that society in general disapproves the most: crimes. Presenting things in the best possible light doesn't change the fact that the crime happened. Sometimes it's just a question of the motives behind it, why the person did it. [Sometimes it is relevant; other times the motives are irrelevant, in the sense that it will not change a thing. But even when that is the case, I would argue that allowing the accused to present its motives -- those not acceptable as a justification/defense -- plays a vital role in the criminal system, as an accused will only accept the sentence if he feels his version and his motives were heard by the court].
Such bias of mine is not only professional. I would say that trying to see things in the best possible light will save you a lot of hassle in life. Although I confess it doesn't come naturally to me in my personal life, I have to make a conscious effort to achieve it. Still, I believe it is a good principle to follow.
Such bias often gets triggered when public accusations are made and there is a big public outcry about facts that are not at all clear. The bigger the outcry, the bigger my hitch.
That is the case with Stallman. Fully aware of my bias and that I might be lacking some information, I reserve the right to change my mind about this subject in the future, but as of now, I must say it:
There are some deeply troubling things in the accusations being made against Stallman, and in the way I see people reacting to it.
This is an old story, but it resurfaced recently as RMS announced his return to FSF board. I will assume the reader is familiar with the story, and won't retell it. The most relevant links are these:
The accusations are based in blatant false information
The main accusation made to Stallman in the original text is that Stallman has said that the enslaved children were entirely willing.
Quoting from the blog:
he says that an enslaved child could, somehow, be “entirely willing”.
And this went on to the press, which the same blog links to.
The Daily Beast:
(really? -_-' )
What Stallman actually wrote:
We can imagine many scenarios, but the most plausible scenario is that
she presented herself to him as entirely willing. Assuming she was
being coerced by Epstein, he would have had every reason to tell her
to conceal that from most of his associates.
For an intellectually honest person it shouldn't be needed to state the difference between what Stallman said and what was reported. Stallman said that it was possible that the girl presented herself to Minsky as entirely willing. He did not say that Epstein victims were there entirely willing (and therefore, not "victims"). He did not defend Epstein.
Furthermore, while quoting and reacting to the phrase
«deceased AI ‘pioneer’ Marvin Minsky (who is accused of assaulting one of Epstein’s victims )»,
Stallman stated he was against the use of the term "assault" when there is no violence. Which is a fair and common criticism, as Nadine Strossen explains.
That lead to another criticism in the blog: the use of the expression "had sex", considering the fact that the girl was 17 year old. Stallmans considers that Epstein should not be called a pedophile, "since the people he raped seem to have all been postpuberal", and preferres to call him a “serial rapist” instead. That seems to be right, at least according to Wikipedia.
In any case, these are discussions about... semantics.
Stallman also said:
“I think it is morally absurd to define “rape” in a way that depends on minor details such as which country it was in or whether the victim was 18 years old or 17.”
Those rules are somewhat arbitrary, indeed. Maybe that is more clear in Europe, where the rules vary a lot from country to country (Portuguese readers might want to check this article), althought things seems to be not that different in the USA.
In Portugal, consensual sex between a 17 and an adult is not a crime, and "rape" is a different concept that implies violence. Cases that involve "relevant sex acts" with children with less than 14 years old are considered a crime named "sexual abuse of children"; if the victim is between 14 and 16 years old it falls under a different crime: "sexual acts with teenagers". The penalty for the first is much heavier than the penalty for the latter. "Relevant sex acts" with 17-18 years old are punished if such minors "were entrusted [to the offender] for education or assistance", or if they are related to prostitution. [I translated the Portuguese legal expressions as literally as possible, in quotation marks]
These rules of ours are anything but consensual, a lot of people debate on the subject. My anecdotal experience is that most of those people (or at least the most vocal ones) are of the opinion that our rules do not offer enough protection to minors. It's the usual problem of having to set objective rules for not so objective goals: the law has to be objective, but people won't agree on exactly which objective criteria would be the most adequate. But all of this is enough to demonstrate how those rules are anything but self-evident. They are debatable. [Let me remind you that I am reffering to criminal laws, not any other kind of norms].
The text in the blog then proceeds to some pathetic arguments like the fact that what he wrote could be read by 17 or 18 years old (the undergraduate students), as if 17 or 18 years old were not able to discuss these things. Or some "relatively less serious or even funny gaffe".
So there is not much there, right? A major misunderstanding (in the best case scenario - I keep trying to see things in the best possible light) about what he actually wrote, some disagreement on what should be the proper semantics of "rape" and "sexual assault" (which Nadine Strossen's text covers better than I could), and that's pretty much it.
I can only understand such a public appeal to "Remove Stallman", by someone who claimed not to know who Stallman was, if such person acts in error regarding what Stallman wrote and truly believes he was defending sex trafficking. Error is the only excuse for one to qualify such words as "excuses about rape, assault, and child sex trafficking", and to start "emailing reporters — local and national, news sites, newspapers, radio stations" about it. Those are very, very serious accusations.
I would have sued.
What really annoys me is that, as we've seen, that was clearly not what was written. Yet, this whole thing went viral and got everyone's attention, and somehow what Stallman actually wrote no longer mattered. Why?
There are good reasons to be skeptical of the attacks on Stallman.
Before addressing why, a previous point.
Stallman is the main political and philosophical reference of the Free Software Movement. I won't elaborate on how this movement has been a never-ending threat to more capitalist views in the software industry. Eric S. Raymond sums it up when he tells us about his short conversation with a Microsoft executive, in an elevator. The latter asked who Raymond was and he answered: "I'm your worst nightmare!".
[I'm pretty sure there's is special place in Free Software Hell for those who quote Eric S. Raymond 1) as a representative of the free software movement, and 2) in a text about problematic quotes - but, hey let's not get lost in the details, shall we? 😅].
The point is that there are A LOT of incredibly powerful forces which have a lot to gain if the FOSS movement gets weaken / discredited, there's A LOT of money to be made there if free software as a movement is gone. Those companies / industries could easily hype an episode like this to the moon . That's a very valid reason to be specially skeptical on attacks like these, although it's hard to say if that's what happened here. Maybe it was, at least partially. But it seems to me that the main reason this episode got fire was due to changes withing the FOSS movement itself.
So, what happened?
1. People are tired of disrespect
In this century, some things are no longer considered acceptable by an ever increasing number of people. I believe that behind ideas/movements, such as the so-called political correctness, there is a profound feeling of tiredness. People tired of injustices, tired of the world being what it is, people who want to change it. Political correctness is the worst way to achieve it, sure, but that's a different story. Specially within STEM fields, tradicionally dominated by men, some boy-club attitudes are not welcoming to other people, and that must change. Stallman is perceived as a major specimen of such problems.
2. Stallman seems to be an asshole
I've attended a Stallman's conference, and watched a few others, but I never actually spoke with him. Having had no personal contact with him, it would be unfair for me to state that Stallman is a asshole, but that certainly seems to be the opinion of many different people with whom I've been in contact over the years. For the sake of the argument, let's assume it is true.
This means that there were three groups of people that played a key role in this episode. The first group is made of people that were in error about what he wrote, the second is made of people who would simply disagree with my interpretation of all of this, and the third is people who might have the same opinion as me (or at least that would partially concede to these arguments) but have decided to keep quiet about it because they don't like or are fed up of Stallman. Within the free software movement, many people want to see Stallman gone, specially for reasons stated in the points 1) and 2), above. This third group of people were my main motivation for this text.
When someone is being attacked/accused of something and such accusations is not correct or accurate, one must point it out. But if our criteria on deciding to point it out or not is wether we like the person or not, that constitutes a denial of the very concept of justice. Your opinion on two exactly equal situations will change depending on whether or not you like the person being accused.
To be honest, that's the human nature, we all have done it before, at some point. But when I see it happening, my bias compels me to denounce it.
Also, Stallman should be judged by what he says and writes, not for what other people put it in his mouth.
If you criticize Stallman, please state exactly what are you criticizing
That is the only way for other people to assess the merits of the criticism. We should aim to avoid canceling lists or trending cancelations, where the exact reasons for it usually get lost in the hysteria of the social networks.
For example, it troubles me to see an entity like EFF mentioning "serious accusations of misconduct" in a reference to a blog that features the two press articles above: the article in Vice and the article in tabloid The Daily Beast, both of which have titles which are blatant lies. EFF therefore implies that it agrees that "Stallman described Epstein victims as 'entirely willing'".
And you wonder why the community is divided?
Oddly, Stallman kinda said something similar in those emails:
"Whatever conduct you want to criticize, you should describe it with a
specific term that avoids moral vagueness about the nature of the
Stallman views on pedophilia are very troubling
Turns out that are good reasons to approach Stallman opinions with caution. On a follow-up post in the blog, which is presented as "a more complete review of why he should be removed", the author compiles further evidence to support her cause. [Keep in mind: the author claimed not to know who Stallman was when she decided to write the "Remove Stallman" appeal, therefore she also did not know any of these facts, at the time].
Although the author does not focus on this issue/quote specifically, the most blatant problem, for me, is Stallman's (old) quote on pedophilia, even if he later apologized. Let's be clear: having such opinion is not a crime in itself (and specially not that specific crime), such distinction must be clear. However it is a perfectly valid argument to say that Stallman should not be in a leadership position due to his views on this subject. I have no problem whatsoever with such stance.
The follow-up post focus mostly on the "negative environment for women at MIT for over thirty years", and gives us three quotes (2 anonymous, 1 mostly anonymous) about Stallman. One seems a joke that Anonymous nº1 heard back in the day, the other two are also not something that per se would earn him a cancellation, I would say. Still, something worth to keep an eye on. Other than that, the rest of the text is not really about Stallman.
The problem with misogynist behavior and similar abuse is that it is not easy to demonstrate it and convince people, when it doesn't happen in public. If we would apply a court-criteria while evaluating the "evidence", never a claim of misogynist behavior could be believed, because such claims usually can only came through anonymous statements and behind the curtain conversations. It's a tricky situation. Personally, when such news reach me, I try to listen and take note of it. I don't automatically believe it, I also don't dismiss it. The credibility of the person telling the story plays a crucial role.
Therefore, when I see an open letter to remove Stallman, signed by people and entities I respect a lot, I pay attention. I concede credibility to the claims.
However, it saddens me to see that the claims suffer from the exact same problems I pointed out in the blog's text, and strech those even further.
For example, the text itself admits that "several news reports misrepresented Stallman’s position while discussing allegations against Minsky". OK, great.
But then it immediately adds: "Stallman has previously expressed opinions that were consistent with the inaccurate portrayal". What. The. Hell? Those newspapers misrepresented his position, but that's ok because you think such misrepresentation is more representative of the idea you have of him? Or somehow acceptable despite being "inaccurate"? This is not acceptable.
If the newspapers misrepresented his expressed opinions - and they did - , such newspapers shouldn't be mentioned in this letter. Simple.
Another claim is that Stallman is transphobic. Why? Because despite the fact that he uses and supports the usage of genderless pronouns, in a long reflection on all the available options for genderless pronoums, he considers that the best option is the one suggested by Marge Piercy in the book Woman on the Edge of Time: "person", "per" and "pers". He thinks that singular "they" is a bad choice, grammar wise, as it "feels wrong" and "results frequently in confusing expressions in which the referent of 'they' is unclear".
I don't really care about the specifics of Stallman's position on genderless pronouns. But these kinds of discussions are held among those who actually defend the usage of genderless pronouns. His opinion on "better genderless pronouns" is not transphobia.
Then there is criticism on his opinions on termination of pregnancy due to Down syndrome. Context: a 2016 piece in The Guardian which states that the new test "is expected to lead to a greater number of terminations as more women agree to be screened". So women are free to make that choice, and apparently it is expected that having such choice available will lead to a greater number of terminations, but Stallman cannot declare himself is in favor of termination of pregnancy in those cases, for whatever reason...
And yes, one of his comments regarding persons with Down syndrome is simply rude and disrespectful.
All things considered, it is disappointing to see people signing this open letter, as it is. Had that letter been about his views on pedophilia and/or his misogynist behavior or other kind of abuse, I would see it differently. I would just listen and give credit to it.
But this only adds up to the reasons I've had before to remain skeptical about all of this. Such efforts to go against anything he says or write, the mixing of legit arguments and concerns with other completely meritless claims, makes this look like an witch-hunt. An attempt at character assassination. I don't like that, and it's hard for me to see good faith in all of it.
Such meritless accusations not only take the focus out of the important ones, they also come with the serious collateral damage on free speech. Suddenly, it's no longer about pedophilia and misogyny, it's about everything single opinion that, despite being socially acceptable and even common in the society at large, it is different from the accusers' opinions. And the ease with which such accusations are made...
I will never agree with such totalitarian vision of the world, no matter from which political or ideological field it comes, that is fed by a lack of tolerance to different views. Yes, there is a bar that divides what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, but that bar does not follow the exact outlines of your personal opinions on each and every subject. That bar is set by society in general, which is made of a wide range of opinions, many of which are the opposite to yours, yet perfectly acceptable. When in doubt, it is better to err in excess when it comes to freedom of expression. I have serious concerns on how reactions like this make people self-censor.
In this context, libertarians are easy prey. I also don't agree with many libertarian opinions / thinking, although in some subjects that I care about libertarians play a key role and we share similar views. But I always admired the intellectual honesty and transparency of the libertarians I know. They will tell you exactly their opinions, no matter how controversial, they will explain why they defend that, and they tend to be deeply logical about their arguments, disconsidering other external factors/influences. Their thought is so structured... that often becomes predictable.
In a world that is becoming less and less open to different views, libertarians are the first victims. Because they are transparent, often proud, and they don't hide. Other people do. Other people (specially in Europe, it seems to me), in a context of a hostile environment, will self-censor and blend in. At least with the libertarians you know what to expect.
But the point is: we should not cancel people just because we don't like them or don't agree with them.
The Free Software movement would likely be better off without Stallman
Given the circumstances, the legit reasons why Stallman should not be in a leading role, all of the controversy around him, and the split of the community, it's very likely that the free software movement would be better of without Stallman in a leadership position.
But that's not the f*ucking point! We don't get to cancel people just because we would be better off with new leaders. We get new leaders.
I think there are legit reasons for one to wish for Stallman to step away from leadership roles: his views surrounding pedophilia, and his abusive behavior. Note that I cannot prove the latter, I choose to give credit to such claims, after weighting the information I have -- I might be wrong.
But there are deeply troubling problems with the accusations that are being made, and I don't see that being pointed out. Those problems make me doubt the true intentions behind some of what has been happening, and more than anything, those problems seem to me to be the root cause of the current division among the free software movement. It saddens me to see some people willingly ignoring those problems, maybe -- in their view -- for some sort of a greater good. But the ends should not justify the means. The ease with which meritless accusations are added to the list and the lack of objectivity and critical thinking in public statements and accusations is worrying. It represents a tendency towards totalitarian stances which do not allow space for different opinions, regardless of the merits of such opinions. Allowing this to go unchecked causes collateral damage on free speech, therefore I feel compelled to call it out.