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Re: Support RMS

From: Aaron Wolf
Subject: Re: Support RMS
Date: Thu, 15 Apr 2021 23:04:59 -0700

I see boy-cried-wolf dynamics at play in all this. And there *are*
witch-hunt dynamics.

I work to get *past* my own trepidation while trying to engage
constructively. I am honestly nervous. I worry that the sort of people
who are quite upset about RMS being put back on the Board will see *me*
in some bad light, will lose some trust in me or will associate me with
the most rude, knee-jerk RMS defenders simply because I refuse to take a
strong stance on the RMS-should-step-down side. This dynamic is so
troubling. I work to really listen, I want to be open and learn, I avoid
just writing off critics as if they are all malicious etc. And *still* I
worry about the ramifications of expressing skepticism of the claims
from the upset people.

This is not equal on all sides. The most defensive and reactive of the
RMS-defenders might express themselves rudely to me, but I do not worry
about some backlash against me.

What I'm saying is: there's TRUTH to the arguments about witch-hunt and
cancel-culture and so on. And I shouldn't have to repeat this over and
over, but a subset of people are unwilling (at this point anyway) to
recognize that it's possible to see that these bad dynamics *are*
present and yet still conclude that a portion of the RMS critiques are

The boy-cried-wolf effect is strong, as I said. If someone keeps saying
"there's a wolf! come quick!" and it's just not true, then a second
person saying, "even though there's no wolf, there's actually other
problems still, and you should come anyway" is just liable to get
dismissed and ignored — especially if they only say "you really do need
to come!" without emphasizing that they understand there's no wolf.

The parable is extra strong because there really are serious issues with
bigotry and harassment of various sorts that are as bad and worse than
anything RMS is accused of. And those are the "wolves" that get *less*
attention because people get desensitized when unfair and exaggerated
accusations are common.

I just think again that it's a strategic mistake for the valid RMS
critics to speak up and ally themselves with messages that are unfair.
It harms their message. People see the unfairness and become
closed-minded to hearing valid criticism.

Let me be candid: I have worked with or known (all in volunteer
capacity, I've only ever *spent* money and time as part of my free
software efforts) several organizers of conferences, former FSF
employees, and so on. All of the people who know RMS better than I have
told me that his behavior and issues have been troubling over many
years. Some of them still admire and respect RMS anyway. Some of them
refused to sign the open letter because they could not put their name on
something they felt was unfair and exaggerated — but they otherwise
still shared the concerns about RMS being back on the Board. Some had
mixed feelings, really unsure what to think, upset about all the drama.

I do not feel comfortable naming names because I do not have permission
to share stories that were told to me privately. Also, most of the
stories did not go into details, so I don't even really know. It was
just that most people independently told me the same style of thing
about RMS being a problem in various ways. This isn't all new, I'm
talking about things people told me over several years.

Now, to be clear, my impression is that *all* of the critiques are
around the social awkwardness, temper, flirting, RMS-above-the-rules,
this sort of thing which again is NOT "misogyny" or "transphobia" or
other accusations in the letter. Sexism… that's more subtle but, you know.

Like here's one story: I was at LibrePlanet 2014 and RMS was speaking
and mentioned offhand how a certain sort of older computer with no disk,
they used to joke and called it a dickless computer. 10 minutes later he
apologized for the crass joke in a sincere manner before awarding some
sort of women-in-free-software award. I heard second hand that he had to
have someone pull him aside and emphasize the problem before he realized
the issue and apologized. This is troublesome, and you know
straw-that-broke-the-camels-back is another parable. But this isn't
anything like the over-the-top-accusations. Still, that's RMS in public.
Reasonable to accept the claim that he gets worse than that. Even still,
that's all social awkwardness and not malice. It might be *truly*
harmful to the movement, but it doesn't merit accusing RMS of bigotry.
RMS doesn't believe that only men can be good programmers or similar
bullshit. He actively promotes feminist political ideas. That doesn't
excuse his behavior, but it does give context and nuance.

I would not accept the accusations of real bigotry without strong
evidence. I think levying them and just asking people to take one's word
for it is grossly unreasonable.

And although I might disagree with Deb in some of her exact tactics in
engaging, you might notice that she has not made such accusations. The
sort I'm hearing from her directly are the same as I've heard from both
men and women who have worked closely with RMS for years. I know it's
hard to hear this stuff in the context of the more exaggerated attacks.

I believe some of the well-intentioned critics are doing that
counterproductive pattern of digging-in. Like there's years of awkward
flirting and sexist jokes that make people decide to not invite someone
to an FSF event… and when a skeptic doubts that RMS is sexist at all,
the critics who are emotionally exhausted and frustrated start
emphasizing stronger instead of pulling back.

It's like if RMS were talking to a climate-change-denier. The denier
might say "sure, there's some fluctuation, but not enough to really be a
threat", and RMS gets upset enough to say, "it's not just some
fluctuation, we're talking about existential threat to life on Earth!
It's global heating, climate mayhem, not just warming. People alive
today may live to see the complete collapse of our food systems." And as
much as people agreeing with RMS might sympathize and cheer him on, this
is the *opposite* of the message that would help the denier find some
common ground. They are already skeptical, and now the claims are just
getting more and more extreme.

This is what's happening here partly. In response to doubts about RMS
being so bad, RMS critics who are engaging are trying to get people to
see the issues by emphasizing how bad and harmful his actions are, how
badly they've turned people away, how men choose not to bring their
wives to LibrePlanet or the anecdotes of potential presenters not
submitting talks etc. The problem is, this is the opposite of what will
reach an RMS defender who is already reacting to what they see as unfair
attacks and witch-hunt.

All of this drama is mostly just tragic and costing a lot of time and
energy. We could at least appreciate the lessons that are here to be
learned. I could go on, but this email is 10 times too long already. I'm
writing this in my own reactive state trying to stake out once and for
all that a nuanced middle-ground position can and does exist, despite
the risk that staking out this position can mean getting pummeled from
both sides.

Thanks to everyone who has been working with me to have constructive
communication. Please anyone and everyone, feel free to send me
constructive criticism. I'm interested in your perspectives if you
bothered to read this. Make it off-list if you are hesitant to take more
time from everyone on the list (which you should be). Apologies to
everyone for taking your time. I will try for FEW and SHORT emails from
here on out.

On 2021-04-15 9:59 p.m., Jean Louis wrote:
> Dear Aaron,
> As it appears you know Deb well, and I don't know either of you, is it
> reasonable that I have asked Deb to express herself rather
> specifically instead of placing general accusations in public?
> Now, she said more than 6+ people she knows who complains, and that
> there is speech in one video in 2018.
> That is all so far I got from Deb.
> Can we get that video from 2018, that we can see what it is?
> As for now those accusations appear like a balloon, full of air. That
> some people were interrupted, some people were in disagreement, and
> some women approached, I would say so what, I cannot see how anything
> of that is proportionate to character assassination going on.
> May we see that video from 2018? Which URL is it? At what minute?
> Videos are public, where is that conference?
> Deb wish to say there was something RMS said in background, OK fine,
> but then if it was so important, why there is no URL?
> Let us please review that situation, as if accusers wish to bring it
> in public here on the mailing list, let us the public judge the actual
> real incident, as it must be on video.
> Jean
> Take action in Free Software Foundation campaigns:
> Sign an open letter in support of Richard M. Stallman

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