In Support of Richard Stallman

Normalizing Truth, Reason, Dialogue

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Debunking False Accusations Against Richard Stallman

 

The fact that a great many people believe something is no guarantee of its truth. —W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge.

This article is inspired by two posts[1] published on Reddit by CauliflowerResident3, a female student from the University of Waterloo in Canada. A remote speech by Richard Stallman organized by the Computer Science laboratory at the university was not allowed after the lies spread far and wide by the press. She wrote those articles to protest and try to get people to reason, to no avail. Such is the force of defamation.

Richard Stallman was and is still being accused of things he did not do. Events from decades ago were dug up, misrepresented and exaggerated ad nauseam. Things he wrote were misquoted. He has been accused of being a misogynist, a transphobic or a defender of pedophilia or sexual assault. These accusations are wrong.

Communities have to do better when complex situations involve multiple and very serious harms, and when attacks are opportunistic. What makes the attacks on Richard Stallman opportunistic?

Richard Stallman has for decades expressed views on topics which many people consider controversial (sexism, prostitution, racism.) Stallman's comprehensive personal philosophy on social matters can make people uncomfortable. For example, his logical framing on issues of sexuality sometimes challenges conventional “right answers” or offends people whose framing is more emotional or personal.

We can both assert and demonstrate that Stallman has never condoned the evils he has been accused of.

Examining the Claims

It is said that Richard Stallman...

  1. defended Epstein
  2. said that Epstein's victims were “entirely willing”
  3. condones sexual assault
  4. defends pedophiles and pedophilia
  5. is a misogynist:
  6. is an ableist
  7. is transphobic

Claim #1 - Stallman Defended Epstein #defended-epstein

No. That lie was repeated by dozens of headlines and in social media. It was plain defamation. In fact, the opposite is true. Stallman wished for a longer sentence for Epstein, called the non prosecution agreement illegal. And again, true to his fixation with language, he criticized the law that called Epstein a “sex offender” as too weak to describe the magnitude of his crimes, proposing “serial rapist” as a more accurate term.

Here's an excerpt from Stallman's article on the subject:

(Now) Labor Secretary Acosta's plea deal for Jeffrey Epstein was not only extremely lenient, it was so lenient that it was illegal. [Archived]

I wonder whether this makes it possible to resentence him to a longer prison term.

By contrast, calling him a “sex offender” tends to minimize his crimes, [...] I think the right term for a person such as Epstein is “serial rapist”.

Claim #2 - Stallman said that Epstein's victims were “entirely willing” #willing

No. Again, this lie was spread all over the Internet by headlines and social media. Stallman never said that. On the contrary, he said that Epstein's victims were being coerced. Here's the relevant snippet from Email #2 that he sent to the CSAIL mailing list (emphasis added):

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.

Another snippet from Email #7 in the PDF (emphasis added):

“Giuffre says she was directed to have sex with Minsky.” Given the circumstances, that implies she was coerced by Epstein into doing so.

We know that Giuffre was being coerced into sex—by Epstein. She was being harmed.

Claim #3 - Richard Stallman defended sexual assault #sexual-assault

No. He argued that “sexual assault” was the wrong term. Interestingly, feminist lawyer Nadine Strossen agrees.

Here's the relevant snippet from Email #2 that he sent to the CSAIL mailing list (emphasis added):

The injustice is in the word "assaulting". The term "sexual assault" is so vague and slippery that it facilitates accusation inflation: taking claims that someone did X and leading people to think of it as Y, which is much worse than X.

Stalllman's fixation with words can be irritating and out of place sometimes, but that doesn't equate with being wrong. For example, when he proposed to call Epstein a “serial rapist” instead of “sex offender,” he surely had a point: Epstein himself used the flawed term to minimize the seriousness of his crimes.

Claim #4 - Richard Stallman defends pedophiles and pedophilia #pedophilia

No. He published a highly controversial comment in 2006 about the intention of pedophiles in The Netherlands to form a political party[2]. Stallman wrote, I am skeptical of the claim that voluntary pedophilia harms children. People today don't think that a prepubertal human being—a child—is capable of understanding all the implications of sexual activity, and in some cases this is so even after puberty. So, in widespread social opinion, “voluntary” does not apply.

In the same article, Stallman writes, [...] stretched by parents who are horrified by the idea that their little baby is maturing. This is not totally improper, especially because it encompasses the immense variation across cultures in beliefs about morality.

Stallman later changed his mind. We don't know when he arrived at the conclusion that sex with children can harm them, all we know is that he made it public on September 14th, 2019: #change-mind

Update April 6, 2021: We just received input from a reader showing evidence that in June 2016 Stallman said he had changed his mind on this subject. That was a reply to a question asked on that date, not the date when Stallman changed his mind, which must have been before he answered the question. We still don't know exactly when, but at least we know it wasn't September 2019. I've just written to Stallman and he explained that his views have changed significantly since the time he wrote these things.[3]

Sex Between An Adult And A Child Is Wrong (Archived)

14 September 2019 (Sex between an adult and a child is wrong)

Many years ago I posted that I could not see anything wrong about sex between an adult and a child, if the child accepted it.

Through personal conversations in recent years, I've learned to understand how sex with a child can harm per psychologically. This changed my mind about the matter: I think adults should not do that. I am grateful for the conversations that enabled me to understand why.

A text attributed to Carl Sagan says:

In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know, that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,” and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

Indeed, Stallman changed his mind after thoughtful debate with people whose views he trusted. He was probably shown empirical evidence.

When we make an unprejudiced analysis of Stallman's thought, we can see a connection to skepticism which is typical of scientific thinking and inquisitive minds. Skepticism has a role to play in challenging social norms as in “I'm skeptical that human binary genders constitute an immutable truth.” Ancient Greeks, who had their own notions about proper sexuality, forced Socrates to drink poison for not believing in the gods of the state.

As for laws, in the United States the criteria for determining age of consent and related issues differ across jurisdictions, some of them have raised the age of consent as recently as 2017 and 2019. Furthermore, the United States seems to have a double standard when it comes to these laws, since marriage of a child with an adult—even much older—is allowed under certain circumstances; we believe that this seriously disregards children's wellbeing in favor of some other “convenience.” Lastly, it may be surprising to some that age of consent in the US is 16 in 34 States.

Excluding individuals from social life, for skepticism and exploratory thinking, is an impoverished approach to achieving progress. Better results are obtained through dialogue and reasoning, as Stallman himself demonstrates.

Claim #5 - Richard Stallman is a misogynist #misogynist

No. Actually, the opposite is true. Stallman has defended women's rights for decades. We are now in the process of compiling evidence of this in a page that already contains some of the many articles he has written over the years showing his support for women; we hope to complete that page soon, with articles going back in the years; (check for updates often.)

Apart from that, a number of women have given testimony of how respectuful of women Richard Stallman has always been, by writing either full articles or short comments in various websites. See, for example, comments by Nina Paley, bdalzell, Emma Pam, Carla Schroder.

We had a look at the section on his website about love (Archived). We tried to find signs of aggression or disrespect for the women related to him and couldn't find any. What we saw is a tenderhearted, caring man.

There is also evidence that Richard Stallman supported the Equal Rights Amendment.

Equal Rights for Women (Archived)

21 April 2018 (Equal Rights Amendment)

The Equal Rights [for women] Amendment has languished since the 1980s, but is just two states short of approval. The Illinois senate has just approved it. [Archived] If the Illinois lower house does likewise, it will be one state away from approval.

If Democrats take back several states in November, the ERA could actually pass.

In a recent conversation with Stallman, he told us that during the 1980s he went to two mass rallies for women's rights in Washington DC. He took buses overnight along with a bunch of other people departing from Boston. #ERA

So no, there is no room here for this kind of... let's call it “inaccuracies.” We can only suspect that this misogyny claim arises mostly from Ms. Selam Jie Gano's post[4] in which she presents “witnesses” who told her “horrifying stories” about how RMS' behavior made the environment for women uncomfortable “in a very real and visceral way.” Let's listen to the witnesses in this non-judicial trial:

  1. Running Jokes

    I recall being told early in my freshman year “If RMS hits on you, just say ‘I’m a vi user’” even if it’s not true.

    That sounds much as part of a series of running jokes at MIT to mock Stallman for his unpopularity among women. Such jocular remarks included things like:

    • Tell him you are a vi user.
    • Put plants in your office to keep him away (it's known that RMS doesn't like plants around him.)
    • Don't ride in the elevator with him.

    And probably others that we don't know. Stallman was unpopular not because he was some sort of a monster harassing women, but because he was seen as unattractive, clueless, and bizarre.

    Update April 11, 2021: A reader who wishes to remain anonymous tells us that he saw back in the days at MIT how people—both women and men—would avoid Stallman because they were annoyed by his constant preaching about free software.

    We came across an example of this. A woman tweeted that Stallman gave her a “stuffed animal” while riding the elevator with him (it was probably a gnu, to tell her about GNU and free software.) But it sounds like she did not appreciate the gift. Here's the tweet[5]:

    That was posted on September 13, 2019, three days before Stallman's resignation. In those days, people were spreading misinformation and desperately trying to find “evidence” of his alleged misbehavior. Did the woman who received the unwanted gift hope her testimony would count as “evidence”? The intention is not clear, but her tweet was a reply to someone who was accusing Stallman of defending rape while backing the claim with a picture of the sign on the door.

    The tweet does sound somewhat scornful, and it seems it was meant to add something against Stallman. But at least the poster was honest enough not to equate the incident with “sexual harassment,” which would have been easy in the absence of witnesses inside the elevator. #running-jokes

  2. The Mattress

    He literally used to have a mattress on the floor of his office. He kept the door to his office open, to proudly showcase that mattress and all the implications that went with it. Many female students avoided the corridor with his office for that reason... I was one of the course 6 undergrads who avoided that part of NE43 precisely for that reason. (the mattress was also known to have shirtless people lounging on it...)

    After some research, we found out that the man seen with the mattress was not Stallman but someone else. Prof. Gerald Jay Sussman, who at the time had an office next to it, told us:

    That mattress was in an office between Stallman's office and my office. I remember that a common occupant of that mattress was a person called “Tom”, who was tolerated by, but unrelated to Richard or his group.
    —Gerald Jay Sussman

    It seems it was not unusual for people to keep a mattress in their offices—to take a nap. #mattress

  3. Response to Betsy S.

    When I was a teen freshman, I went to a buffet lunch at an Indian restaurant in Central Square with a graduate student friend and others from the AI lab. I don’t know if he and I were the last two left, but at a table with only the two of us, Richard Stallman told me of his misery and that he’d kill himself if I didn’t go out with him. I felt bad for him and also uncomfortable and manipulated. I did not like being put in that position - suddenly responsible for an “important” man. What had I done to get into this situation? I decided I could not be responsible for his living or dying, and would have to accept him killing himself. I declined further contact. He was not a man of his word or he’d be long dead.

    Betsy S.

    RMS' Response to Betsy S. (Archived)

    19 July 2020 (A note to Betsy S.)

    Betsy S met me at a lunch around 40 years ago. I am sure her recounting of her recollections is sincere, but she must have misunderstood the last thing I said to her. She said she didn't want an acquaintance with me. That no, on top of so many noes from others, impelled me to express despair; she seems to have misconstrued that as a demand.

    Betsy S, I regret that this misunderstanding caused you distress. I never intended to demand anything of you. I only ever wished you well.

    We have nothing to add, except perhaps that we perceive some lack of compassion at the time, and in making an accusatory statement about something that happened 40 (forty) years ago, without the slightest attempt to elucidate things through dialogue first. #suicide

  4. Sign On The Door

    A certain sign on the door is another pretext people found to accuse Stallman of misogynism. No. Stallman never put that sign on his door. Someone else did, either as a joke or vandalism. Stallman took it down. #door

  5. Pleasure Card

    An ironic meme of the card.

    The dichotomy of “business vs. pleasure” is well known. Given Stallman's inclination to play with words and even change the name of things to either oppose or mock established concepts, it's highly probable that's why he chose to called it a “ pleasure card ” instead of the conventional “business card.”

    However, what some people complain about is not how he calls the card, it's the “tender embraces” in it. Even though Stallman hands out these cards to men and women alike, some women find it highly offensive, to the point of calling it “sexual harassment.” For the sake of advancing sensible thinking and intellectual honesty, let's stop hyperbolizing and recognize that it's not.

    Fortunately though, not all women see it that way.

    The card is the result of Stallman's inclination to playfulness in life. It's recursive humor, something that hackers like. It's recursive in that it is an example of what the card itself says: “unusual sense of humour.” It's also a smart solution in case a woman would take it as an invitation to further conversations. In cases like that, the woman can either reject the card, take it and throw it away, or chose to never phone or email him.

    Admittedly, hugs and embraces are not exactly the same thing, but with the level of exaggeration we are witnessing these days, one cannot avoid wondering: if Stallman had started the Free Hugs Campaign, would he be accused of sexual harassment for that as well? #card

Claim #6 - Richard Stallman is an ableist #ableist

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, “ableist” is an adjective that means treating people unfairly because they have a disability (= an illness, injury, or condition that makes it difficult for them to do things that most other people can do).[6]

A photo of Richard Stallman kneeling down to reach a handicapped student sitting on the floor.

Bangalore, 2008. (CC-BY-SA 3.0
from GNU Education.)

For completeness, it is important to also look at what the same dictionary tells us about the meaning of the noun “people.” In this context, the definition that applies is the first: men, women and children. [7]

With those concepts in mind, there is no evidence that Richard Stallman ever discriminated against or mistreated people with disabilities.

The claim that he is an ableist is based on something he wrote in his website about a new noninvasive test for pregnant women that would detect fetuses with Down syndrome. However, the way he worded it came across as if he was referring to people already born, and it hurt some readers, specially those who had a family member with that condition.

That post was first published on October 31, 2016, captured by the wayback machine a few days later on November 7, 2016.

Various modifications to that initial post show that Stallman kept thinking about the subject and elaborated his writing accordingly. The next capture available at the wayback machine is from February 21, 2017, which shows some changes in the text. In a capture from June 12, 2017, we can see further elaboration of the text and a change in the structure of the article to divide lines of thought into different paragraphs, in an effort to present his position in the most clear possible way. That seems to be the last version as available on March 25, 2021:

31 October 2016 (Down's syndrome)

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. [Archived]

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.

It is important to consider that not everyone agrees that the best course of action is to abort a fetus with Down Syndrome or other disabilities. Furthermore, not everyone agrees with the dictionary definition of “people.” Many sustain that fetuses are complete human beings from the moment of conception; these positions condemn abortion under all circumstances.

To be sure, there are members of the free software community who hold different opinions on this and other matters. Should we exclude abortion supporters or opponents from our communities? Not a good idea. If we did, we would probably be left with half the number of members. Should we engage in condemnation, punishment and name-calling when in disagreement? We don't think so. In healthy communities, we must respect people's right to state their views, even when we desagree.

On the other hand, studies show that abortion rates are high in Europe and the United States for cases of pregnancies diagnosed with Down syndrome. #ableist

Claim #7 - Richard Stallman is transphobic #transphobic

This accusation is so far-fetched that it almost elicits a piteous smile. It's based on an essay (Archived) by Stallman in which he presents the results of his thinking on how to best refer to a person without specifying gender. In it, he argues that the use of the singular “they” is not the best choice because it eliminates one of the grammar mechanisms we use to make sentences clear. He demonstrates this with examples of how the use of “they” in some constructions results in ambiguity.

A photo of Richard Stallman kneeling down to reach a handicapped student sitting on the floor.

Fair use[8]

Stallman comes out with a solution by borrowing the pronouns person, per and pers used by Marge Piercy in her book Woman on the Edge of Time.

Here are two snippets from the book that show the use of these genderless pronouns:

The story is a future utopia where people are kinder to each other and they use these pronouns to put an end to sexism.

Stallman read this novel in the 70s, when Marge Piercy's books in general were quite popular. This one in particular became a classic of feminist literature that has been reprinted several times since its first edition in 1976. Piercy's introduction to the 2016 edition is a close view of where we stand in our way to social justice 40 years later. (Archived)

Contrary to the accusations, the fact that Stallman spent time and effort to find a solution to respect people who identify as non-binary is evidence that he cares and is not transphobic. #transphobic

There are more of these sort of claims. We will be adding them as we progress with work in the website. Look for announcements in the updates page.


References and Notes

  1. Richard Stallman is being falsely accused of things he did not do. (Archived)
    The University is violating their own policies regarding free speech. (Archived)
  2. Dutch paedophiles form political party. (Archived)
  3. Wikipedia:Biographies of living persons/Noticeboard. (Archived)
  4. https://selamjie.medium.com/remove-richard-stallman-appendix-a-a7e41e784f88
  5. Elevator Tweet. (Archived)
  6. Definition of “ableist”. (Archived)
  7. Definition of “people”. (Archived)
  8. Fair use: to illustrate a reference to the book in this article. Source. (Archived) Copyright held by the publisher or the artist.