Cancelling Richard Stallman?

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This article was bi-posted to Gemini and the Web; Gemini version is here: gemini://gemini.circumlunar.space/users/kraileth/neunix/2021/cancelling_rms.gmi

If you have any interest in FLOSS (Free and Libre Open-Source Software), you know who Richard Matthew Stallman (RMS) is: As the founder of both GNU project and the Free Software Foundation (FSF), he’s quite an icon to many. In 2019, a scandal around deliberate (?) misunderstanding of what he said regarding one detail of the Epstein affair ultimately lead to him stepping down as president of the FSF. Now in March 2021 he returned to the organization’s board of directors. The latter fact was reason enough for quite some people to start a turmoil again, pressing for his second removal with an open letter.

Now personally I don’t like RMS much. I believe in permissive licenses and prefer those over copyleft in general and strongly over the GPL license family that Stallman stands for like no other person. I’m a happy Vi user and think that Emacs (RMS’s editor) is a great example for what software should not be like. I’ve also regularly opposed false claims of Stallman’s many fans and their very pessimistic view on important topics like freedom and life in general. In fact I’ve used neologisms like Stallmanism and Stallmanites to describe the indiscriminate ideology of Stallman and his most pig-headed followers.

Today I’ve signed another Open Letter supporting RMS and I’m even writing this article. How come?

Cancel culture

Let me repeat: I do not particularly like the person RMS nor do I uncritically approve of what he stands for. On the contrary. But as an Open Source enthusiast and advocate who has tried to argue against his positions I do even less approve of how a mob of phony hypocrites is acting against him. Gesture politics is wrong and actually harmful. Let’s talk about real problems in this world and not publicly slay giants of the Free Software movement by basically backstabbing them!

The phenomenon of what is often called “cancel culture” these days is one brutal form of contemporary witch-hunt. It is deeply anti liberal and anti free speech. Real people are “convicted” not by a judge after at least being able to plead innocent and have their case examined duly. No, it’s a gang with a certain political agenda that decides someone is guilty of whatever and will just insist on action to be taken on their judgement. This is much, much more dangerous than most neutral observers think. If such a campaign is successful it means that de facto there is a new power along the actual written law – and it may even take precedence over it!

Let’s think about this for a moment. Maybe you’ve been a lawful citizen all your life. You are an esteemed member of society and maybe even earned honors and awards. But then all of the sudden somebody points at you and shouts: “You did XYZ thirty years ago!” While that was nothing special back in the day and was (and is!) perfectly legal, more and more people join in, screaming at you that this is a “disgrace” and completely “inexcusable”… How do you defend against such a campaign?

  • You could explain that it’s not an illegal thing. Then the mob will eat you raw, yelling that this clearly shows “how you have not even learned a thing”!
  • You could state that you are deeply sorry and honestly wish you had acted differently. But as your actions are by the mob’s definition “inexcusable”, you’re done for anyway.
  • Or you could try a combination of both. Yet you’ll still drown in the public wrath directed at you.

Plead guilty or innocent before the judgement of the campaigners – it doesn’t make too much of a difference. And all of that while you are still very much spotless and respectable by law! This violates a number of fundamental legal principles of constitutional states:

  • Nulla poena sine lege (“No punishment without a law”): If no rule exists that prohibits something, you cannot be punished for it.
  • Nulla poena sine lege certa (“No punishment without precise law”): You cannot be convicted on base of a law that describes “somewhat similar” deeds.
  • Nulla poena sine lege praevia (“No punishment without previous law”): If you did something before it was declared a crime, you cannot be punished. Ex postfacto laws are invalid!
  • And more…

The effects of “cancel culture” that we see today are a true nightmare for any rational thinking person. You can be fried decades from now for something you do today without any bad will at all! Also it means turning away from the Christian principle of forgiveness for repentant offenders and thus shakes the very foundation of Western society as we know it. Welcome, friends, to our Brave New… τυραννίς! (I’m using the Greek word Tyrannis on purpose here, because I refer to an ancient Greek Tyrannos here and not modern notions of “Tyranny” and “Tyrant” which is a judgmental and negatively connoted term.)

Context!

Campaigns like the aforementioned against RMS work according their own twisted logic – and that only really applies if you can make people so upset that they are willing to ignore each and every context.

I’m a sysadmin; if you hear me talking about “killing all children” that does not make me a misanthropist or a violent person! Now I can hear you say: Fine, but there are things that are despicable no matter the context! Beg your pardon, but think again, please. Everything is subject to context.

Even though most people would agree to the statement “killing is wrong”, let me ask you if you really think your local butcher is a criminal (no food debate, please. I’ve been a vegetarian myself for close to a decade, but I am a liberal being accepting other people’s different thinking on such a matter)? It actually makes much of a difference if you think that “Thou shalt not kill” is one of the 10 commandments – or if you take a more precise translation of “Thou shalt not murder“!

Or for another example: Could there really be any context that would make the statement “rape should not be punished” anything but loathsome? Yes, of course! It can for example be a premiss in thinking about the consequences of such a stance. And that would be a perfectly legitimate thing: Unbiased thinking about something. There can be value in thinking over even the seemingly most absurd premisses like that.

There are two very important pieces of general context that the campaigners misappropriate:

  • What was the general public feeling towards XYZ at that point in time? Was it really such a huge deal back then? If not: How can you dare to not only dictate your moral values to others but even demand different behavior when what you dislike today was still very common?
  • RMS is autistic. And not even the very light form of it. People’s feelings are hard (maybe even impossible) for him to really understand.

Stallman is for example convinced that our planet is over-populated. When he learned that a person he had email contact with was going to be a father soon, he seriously expressed his sympathy – obviously not knowing that this is usually a joyful event for people…

Isn’t taking RMS’ autism into account a form of “abelism” by the campaigners? 🤪

Blame game

But let’s take a quick look of what people are accusing him. Here’s the beginning of the open letter with some comments from me:

Richard M. Stallman, frequently known as RMS, has been a dangerous force in the free software community for a long time. He has shown himself to be misogynist, ableist, and transphobic, among other serious accusations of impropriety.

Oh, wow. That’s a fairly “standard” set of charges. There’s nothing concrete here, just pretty weird claims made by people who love to hate opinions different from theirs…

These sorts of beliefs have no place in the free software, digital rights, and tech communities.

Sorry, but no. You presume to define something (in a grotesque way with no room for discussion about your definitions!), incriminate somebody (thus harming his reputation), hand down a verdict (without the need to even hear the defendant, because why should you?) and then press to enforce the judgment (ASAP of course). This is how things go in a dictatorship. We’re getting there, mind you, but are not quite there just yet. Get a life, stop being such ignorant jerks and prepare to have your creed challenged.

There’s more in the letter, but it all boils down to making more accusations and impudent demands. I don’t really want to waste any more time on it. Let’s hope that this is where such a campaign can finally be stopped.

If we could all return to discussing in a civilized manner again, that would be a giant step forward.