In Support of Richard Stallman

Normalizing Truth, Reason, Dialogue

Testimonies, Letters, Writings, and More

As we keep working on this website, we are getting feedback from readers who send us their own writings and testimonies, or point us to writings by other people. We are grateful to all of them for their contributions. We can't publish all of the materials, but here are some.

Professional Interaction with Richard Stallman #professional

by Andy Farnell - March 2021

Attackers of Prof. Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and GNU project, accuse him of “unprofessionalism.” My experience has been different. I recently had reason to speak with Richard Stallman while researching a new book, as I needed to interview an authority on the subject of “Software Freedom.” Of course, this is my personal experience over a short time. Some people say that he is difficult to get along with, but here's why I feel any labelling of Stallman as “unprofessional” is undeserved.

As I hit send on an email to Richard Stallman, a person famed for “being weird,” I sighed with resignation at the fact it would likely go unanswered. Five seconds later a reply appeared. Obviously it was an automated response, including some boilerplate addressed to any NSA agents enjoying our conversation. Weird, yes! Check one! But in good humour. Were I an NSA worker it would cause no offence and make me smile. His email was polite, concise, informative and sensible. It explained Richard's workflow for processing mail and when I might expect a reply.

Now, some might say that a “professional” would delegate their public interface. Having dealt with many prominent people I know it sometimes takes weeks and many attempts just to get through to an agent or handler, let alone win a personal audience. Often when trying to interview other writers or public figures one encounters a fortress of aloof discouragement—just go away, I am way too busy for you. Those who have a great deal to say, often take such pains to hide themselves and make sure nobody gets to speak back. As I see it, Stallman shares with the legendary Noam Chomsky, in being approachable by anyone, whether a professional reporter, student, blogger, or critic.

So, within a few days I received a thoughtful and detailed reply from Richard himself, who suggested we talk, and some choices of technology for a meeting. We found a mutually agreeable solution, being Jit.si, over which Richard devoted hours to helping me with my questions. I had expected a great fuss about encryption, and to find myself awake past midnight recompiling a kernel or fighting with encryption keys in order to talk to Stallman who would be nit-picky, weird and patronising about my weak security practices. That didn't happen. It's a character strength of Stallman I have heard others praise, that while ideologically rigid, he is absolutely pragmatic.

Before we were scheduled to talk, Stallman took the initiative to reach out and remind me we had a meeting, pre-emptively suggesting we test the link, and that I should record the meeting on my side as a reference, thus saving me the awkwardness of asking permission. Professional? Certainly well organised and mindful of the needs of others.

Then came the actual meeting. I get to talk to a lot of smart people, but rarely do they engage like Richard Stallman. He listens. Being into communication theory I pay attention to styles of interaction. In several hours of online connection Richard Stallman never once spoke over me, showing extraordinarily adept use of timing and tone for voice communication with latency while clearly thinking about each question. He ended each session by asking if I needed a follow up session and whether the recording had been successful.

At this point, Richard had no idea who I “really was.” He remarked that he was helping a student publish an article on software freedom in higher education—but he had no time to devote to editing the students prose. I took this as a subtle invitation to quid pro quo, and so I offered to edit the article. That lead to a long, productive and very interesting interaction that inspired an article for the Times Higher Education.

My experience of Stallman seemed the very model of consummate professionalism—exemplary use of technology and language, far, far better manners than I expect from many corporate encounters. Contrary to commentators who paint him as socially clumsy, I found his rather charming way of advancing agendas and connecting people for mutual benefit quite skilful.

The word “unprofessional” has been co-opted as an accusation in modern witch-hunts. It is very hurtful to call another person unprofessional, partly because the concept is so poorly defined, and gets conflated with “bad character.” Often the accusation is levelled at someone who is indeed acting at the absolute height of professionalism, following the true spirit of their profession, but standing against the status quo. Whistle-blowers or those advocating for organisational change toward better ethics come to mind as obvious victims. We must stop abusing the word “unprofessional” as a vague smear against anyone whose opinions we dislike.

Verbal Communication Styles Vary Across Different Cultures #communication-styles

This is an email sent to the LibrePlanet mailing list on April 14, 2021[1]. Although it's a public mailing list, we got explicit permission from the author to reproduce it verbatim here.

Verbal communication patterns can in fact vary considerably across different cultural backgrounds. A couple of resources on this subject: 1. Cultural Groups in the US (Archived)
2. Australia's Cultural Atlas (Archived)

From: Thomas Lord
Subject: Re: Support RMS
Date: Wed, 14 Apr 2021 13:23:10 -0700

The raising of voices in conversation does not have a context independent or culturally universal emotional valence. For some it is normal and expected. For some it borders on a taboo.

Taking the complaint about RMS raising his voice at face value: it borders on antisemitism. I don't mean that every Jew communicates in the style of RMS (of course). Perhaps we can step back and think about this complaint in that context.

Here is a story that might help: Long ago, in the very early days of the FSF, I was an employee and there was more or less one person handling most of the operational day to day corporate business. One day, I had done something that (understandably) pissed RMS off. You see: after a brief chat with a board member other than RMS, I unilaterally decided to work remotely. I packed up and moved several states away, almost overnight, to be near my sweetheart (who is now my wife - it's a very romantic story, in retrospect). I did not notify RMS I was doing this. It upset him. He called and yelled. I was very distressed by this - I didn't expect it at all. I sought and received consel—very good consel—from that woman who was running the day to day business. “Just hang up on him if he gets like that,” she advised. Later I understood this could be generalized: walk away, if need be. One can also really productively engage, sometimes, also, just by yelling back if you have something relevant and coherent to say. As an older person now, I realize that part of RMS' reputation comes from him being actually a better and more dynamic conversationalist than most people have ever met— and yes, that can be hard to come to grip with at first.

This doesn't mean that RMS or anyone has free reign to be a constant holy terror, always screaming and yelling, but that is not what I ever saw RMS do and is not what any of the complainers have said he does. Raised voices among friends and allies typify some cultural backgrounds—including mine, ironically enough. It can, when in those cultural contexts, a bit creepy if someone does not communicate this way. One asks: what is that quiet person hiding from us?

Interruption is a similarly culturally variable communication style. In some cultures I mix in, it is expected and is often a sign of engagement with what one is saying - silence comes off as rude / checked out. In other cultures, the opposite—interruption—is not allowed. In a multi-cultural world, we should all be tolerant and flexible in our communication styles. (RMS, meanwhile, is being made to do the limbo by people who think they get to define the One True Civil Converstation Style. Flexibility in style is a two-way street, chums.)

None of this means that people making complaints have invalid feelings that should be ignored. Of course not. But it does mean that the particular demands against RMS, and the relentless character assassination, need to stop.

Lastly, neither Deb nor any of us is qualified to assess whether or not a single person, RMS in this case, “drives people away from the movement” on balance. That's an incredibly arrogant assertion that centers one own cultural expectations and projects them onto an entire planet of people. Can we end the pointless debate of such assertions once and for all?

-t

A Letter to the FSF #letter1-fsf

Date: Apr 6, 2021, 14:12
From: [Email address redacted]
To: info@fsf.org
Subject: In support of RMS

Dear FSF,

I support Richard's return to the FSF, and hope that he will continue providing momentum to the Free Software Movement in all ways possible, especially through the FSF and GNU.

I am a doctoral student of condensed matter physics at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, India, and a regular user of free software for almost a decade now. I would like to express my gratitude to Richard's initiative for software freedom, which has directly and indirectly enabled my research in more ways than one.

Pradeep Thakur
Pune, India.


References and Notes

  1. Re: Support RMS.