Some Free Software Goings On (And On)

The Free Software™ community is up in arms and is showing that it still has a lot of growing up to do

I don't usually like discussing specific people, especially if I have something negative to say. I'd rather focus on the concepts and the ideas rather than any one individual, and I especially don't like dipping my toes into Internet Drama™. I'm going to have to temporarily supend this policy to talk briefly about the recent (as of this writing) kerfuffle involving Richard Stallman. I'm going to gloss over most of the details because they're really easy to find (and, as it turns out, not really all that relevant to the discussion). The gist is that Richard Stallman is one of the prime movers of the Free Software movement and has throngs of followwers, but has been characterized for decades by a variety of people as being rather unpleasant1.

In 2019 Richard resigned from the Free Software Foundation, an organization that he founded after some things he said landed him in some hot water.2. I didn't make any public comments at the time because I didn't think they were necessary3, but I thought it was probably a good thing given the things that I had read about the guy over the years. Then I didn't think about it much for the next 18 months or so.

Then came the surprise announcement that he's back at the Free Software Foundation on the board of directors.

The response has been polarizing, to say the least, but I think it can be broken down into two main camps:

Camp #1: Stallman has been a creep for years. He had some good ideas 40 years ago, but he's a relic that doesn't seem to realize that the world has changed around him. He burned all of his good will years ago and we don't want to work with him or anything that he's involved with

Camp #2: Stallman's gonna Stallman. Yeah, he's said some weird and objectionable things in the past, who hasn't? But this is just a 'woke cancel culture mob' trying to 'cancel' the guy for no good reason. He's a known quantity and you just have to work around his peccadillos because he's a great man doing great work

Camp #1 seems to be trying to drag the Free Software Foundation (and Richard Stallman by association) kicking and screaming into the 21st century, while Camp #2 seems deeply offended that anyone is trying to affect any change at all because it's a change that they personally don't agree with. The division is particularly evident across a lot of YouTube channels.

I'm not going to name names here, because the names don't matter much and the talking points are basically the same. But these videos keep getting suggested to me via The Algorithm™ because I watched some Linux videos a few times4, so I ended up watching a couple of them just to make sure that I had an understanding of the situation. Now I kind of wish I hadn't.

Almost all of the Camp #2 YouTubers dismissed the whole thing as 'cancel culture'. One guy dismissed the people calling for Stallman to step down as just some 'activists', conveniently apparently forgetting that Richard Stallman is an activist5. Another guy veered into talking about religious persecution, Y-Chromosomes, and sodomy laws in California. Another guy who used to be on YouTube but deleted his account6 posted a ridiculous 12 videos in two days, eight of which (about two hours' worth) were ostensibly rambly defenses of Richard Stallman, but were mostly about the poster complaining about his own issues with people attempting to 'cancel' him, oh, and some of that Stallman stuff, too. I could go on and on, especially since drama incites clicks, but I don't think I want to spend any more time on this.

Here's the thing. I don't really care what the Free Software Foundation does. Other than their work with the GPL, they've been largely irrelevant for decades. If people and organizations want to stop doing business with the FSF or any other organization because they hired someone that they think is objectionable, then that's perfectly fine. Speak with your wallet, but also speak with your words and let the organization know why you're not supporting them any more if it's something you feel strongly about (because if you don't, how are they supposed to know? Guess? Psychic readings?). But it's worth noting that most of the people defending Stallman are disproportionately defensive and are behaving like they're the ones being attacked. They're getting offended on behalf of someone else, and I think that exposes that this mess doesn't really have all that much to do with Stallman.

For decades, IT has been dominated by white males, and that's been changing. This is a good thing! When you start to have people entering fields like IT that haven't traditionally been in that field, then they're going to look at it with fresh eyes. This is also a good thing! Those fresh eyes will be able to tell you what problems they see and offer suggestions on how to improve. This is well known*. Put another way: fresh eyes will identify the missing stairs and will probably be motivated to try and figure out how to fix them instead of just accepting their existence and continuing to work around them until they die of old age or retire7

And what do you do when you're given criticism or negative feedback? Most people would consider it and do some combination of three things: act on it, ask for more information, and/or do nothing. These people, though, they're taking the unadvertised fourth option: sticking their fingers in their ears, shutting their eyes as tightly as they can, and generally throwing a tantrum. I think a lot of the most vocal defenders of Stallman are some of the most resistant to change. They say that they want to be inclusive (all that matters is code quality!), but they don't want to have to personally change how they do things. They're okay with someone advocating for change as long as they do it over there where they aren't seen or heard. And change is fine, as long as they personally don't have to change anything about themselves. Change is for other people. Society is changing around them and they are being presented with societal pressure to modify their behavior, possibly for the first time in their lives, and they don't like it.

As I've aged I've grown to be more accepting of others. More tolerant. More thoughtful. More open to new ideas. More willing to revisit old ideas and realize that maybe some of them were wrong, even though they didn't seem so at the time. And maybe some of them weren't wrong in the past, but are now since everyone knows more. And maybe other points of view are as valid as mine. I've noticed these things in myself in spite of being told (repeatedly) that the opposite is supposed to happen*. And it's disappointing to me that other people who otherwise seem reasonably intelligent go so far into the other direction, viewing every issue as for or against, black or white, one or zero, instead of nuanced shades that may not have an easy solution*.


  1. I am deliberately understating this. There is no shortage of anecdotes about the guy, some of them paint him as mildly eccentric and others as a creep. I have had no personal interactions with him, so I have to go by what I've read and what I've seen, which is most likely not going to be unbiased.
  2. He said at the time that his statements were misunderstood or misinterpreted. For a guy that gets hung up on semantics, he seems to be misunderstood a lot. (See also, See also)
  3. However, I'm certain that my comments now are unneccessary, which is why I'm posting them
  4. I should note that I almost never log in to YouTube or YouTube apps (which YouTube really doesn't like) I just search for whate I want to watch. Once the recommendations start getting stale, I clear the cache on my app or cookies in my web browser and start again fresh.
  5. This is the same guy that said that it's impossible to ever change anyone's mind about anything, so you should never try.
  6. It turns out that he didn't actually delete anything, he just made all his videos private. He also crowed about deleting his twitter account, but he just renamed it and turned it over to the 'fans', who still left up all his garbage tweets that he had posted and complained when people called him out for his garbage.
  7. Okay, the metaphor kind of breaks down here, real broken stairs don't retire, but you probably get my point

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