Richard Stallman, Leadership, and Sexism

Monday Jul 20th 2009 by Bruce Byfield
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What happened at a recent desktop conference points out unresolved issues in the free software community about leadership and sexism -- issues that many prefer to remain silent about rather than confront.

The Desktop Summit two weeks ago in Gran Canaria was supposed to be the first joint conference between GNOME and KDE. And, in the reporting, that's what it was. But in the blogs, the event is going down as the time that Richard Stallman was accused of sexism.

You can understand why journalists are reluctant to report on the matter. Who wants to be accused of attacking the founder of the free software movement? Nor am I any exception. No matter how careful I am, I fully expect to be condemned in certain circles for even raising the subject.

At the same time, such a large discrepancy in reporting is disturbing. In practice, writers and editors set the dividing line between official and unofficial reality every day, if only because they cannot cover everything and have to select what they think is worth spotlighting.

But when a story goes uncovered by the major free software press while the ordinary blogs that do cover it generate the sort of heated discussion found usually on Slashdot, then not mentioning the story becomes a distortion of the truth. Regardless of what anyone thinks of the issue, when so many people on both sides are discussing it, it becomes a story that should be covered.

Moreover, the reluctance to cover it indicates that something more than respect for a major figure is involved. What happened and what people believe happened comes uncomfortably close to some unresolved issues in the free software community about leadership and sexism -- so close that many prefer to remain silent rather than confront them.

Of Mono and Emacs virgins

The controversy centers on Richard Stallman's keynote address on July 4. While I have been unable to find a complete transcript of the address, two parts of it apparently generated controversy: Stallman's remarks on why Mono and .NET (C#) should not be used in free software, and his "Saint Ignucius" comedy routine, in which he made a comment that was condemned as sexist.

Defenders of Stallman suggest that the accusation of sexism is an underhanded response to his remarks on Mono. However, while that may have been a motive in some cases, there is little evidence that it was.

Chani Armitage, a KDE developer, blogged about the sexism. KDE is a desktop where Mono development is in its earliest stages and the average developer extols the Qt toolkit too much to be overly interested in another one.

Similarly, Natan Yellin, a Zeitgeist developer, specifically states that "what disturbs me most about Stallman's speech wasn't the rabid rant against Mono and it wasn't even the fact that he showed his incapability to understand the other side. What troubled me a lot more was his sexist attitude."

Conversely, those who were upset about Stallman's condemnation of Mono do not seem to have noticed any sexism. Most of the GNOME developers who have added "I am not afraid of people writing code" banner to show their support for Mono have made no comments about sexism.

Even more importantly, Miguel de Icaza, the founder of Mono and GNOME, who gave a detailed analysis of Stallman's remarks, tells me that "The impression that I had was that Richard Stallman was not fed the best information. I don't think he has firsthand experience or knowledge of what was going on." Considering that Stallman has edited his short essay on the subject to correct at least one point, de Icaza's characterization of Stallman's remarks in his keynote seems at least partly correct. Yet de Icaza does not include sexism among the keynote's supposed faults.

To say the least, these would be strange omissions for people bent on character assassination.

So what did Stallman actually say? His Saint Ignucius routine is a series of one-liners that satirize religion, developer flame wars over text editors, and even Stallman himself. According to a transcription published by Matthew Garrett, the offending passage is:

"And we also have the cult of the virgin of Emacs. The virgin of Emacs is any female who has not yet learned how to use Emacs. And in the church of Emacs we believe that taking her Emacs virginity away is a blessed act."

The reference to "the virgin of Emacs," of course, is an echo of the Virgin Mary in Christianity. In the past, Stallman has frequently included this passage in the routine, sometimes specifying that an Emacs virgin is female, and at other times leaving the gender unspecified.

Sexism and counter-accusations

The reactions to Stallman's remarks were not long in coming. According to David "Lefty" Schlesinger, a member of the GNOME Advisory Board, he heard "well in excess of a hundred people at the conference" reacting with "dismay, unhappiness and concern" about the comment.

Next Page: Stallman's replies, "I do not believe I owe anyone an apology..."

Schlesinger emailed Stallman explaining his concerns:

"Your remarks gave the distinct impression that you view women as being in particular need of technical assistance (presumably by men, since there's apparently no such thing as a male "Emacs virgin"); additionally, women are quite capable of making their own decisions about who might relieve them of whatever sort of "virginity." [Myself and many others] viewed these remarks as denigrating and demeaning to women, as well as completely out of place at what is, in essence, a technical conference."

When Schlesinger blogged about the incident four days after it occurred, he included Stallman's replies. In Stallman's first reply, he defended the humor of the routine and denied the possibility that Schlesinger raised that it might be offensive to the religious. Instead, Stallman stated that "I do not believe I owe anyone an apology. I did not insult or attack them, but it is clear some people are attacking me. I think I am being unjustly criticized, and I feel I have been wronged."

Schlesinger wrote again, saying that Stallman had not addressed the issue of sexism, and Stallman replied that he had, but "just briefly," and explained the parody elements in the routine, ending with, "I assure anyone who perceived derogatory meanings in it that I did not intend them."

The first reactions to Schlesinger's blog posting centered not on Stallman's remarks, but on the fact that Schlesinger had published private emails. Schlesinger was also accused of being an apologist for Mono, and of being sexist himself because he had not let women speak for themselves.

However, as the discussion continued (it is now at 300 comments on Schlesinger's blog alone), women did express views similar to Schlesinger's. A commenter identified as "Katie" wrote:

"As a woman (lightly) involved with open source/free software, I was disturbed by Richard's "joke" a few years ago when I attended one of his talks, where he also specifically referred to Emacs Virgins as being women.
"Being one of only a handful of women in an audience at a male-dominated talk amplifies the awkwardness when such sexual jokes are made, especially when you don't know many people there."

Similarly, on her own blog, Chani Amitage spoke approvingly of Schlesinger's comments. While Armitage had never heard of the cult of the Virgin Mary, she wrote:

"I interpreted [Stallman's] speech the same was Lefty did; I was just too shy to speak up about it. If knowing about this cult makes the whole thing have a different meaning, then maybe [Stallman] should explain that first because it's not common knowledge. Or just skip the "women" part. Actually, I probably would find it uncomfortable even if I did know all about how it was intended to be taken, because it still reminds all the women that they're different."

Still others focused on Stallman's behavior during the exchange with Schlesinger. A comment by Hannis on Schlesinger's blog says, "If [Stallman] was any kind of decent person, he could have apologized." Another comment from Cody Russell says, "This was the first item I had ever seen [Stallman] speak, and I have to say that if nothing else it's quite disappointing (if not outright disturbing) to see him being paid to go around and act like this."

No gods, and precious few heroes

Some of Stallman's defenders have quoted an interview with Stallman from two years ago to prove that he is not sexist. Unfortunately, the difficulty with this defense is that while Stallman is sympathetic in the interview to women's issues in general, he denies that sexism should be a concern in free software, arguing that "the ethical ideas of free software are gender neutral," but putting down to coincidence that few women hold positions of importance in the Free Software Foundation in particular or the community in general.

At any rate, theoretical support does not mean that Stallman is incapable of making a thoughtless comment, or going too far for the sake of a joke. And that, I suspect is the problem for everyone, no matter how they view Stallman's remark.

By any objective standard, Stallman's comment was sexist -- unquestionably so, and with no shades of gray. But nobody enjoys being confronted with the fact that someone they admire is fallible. Moreover, Stallman's efforts to explain away the comment only reminds everyone about his fallibility all over again.

The result? Those who cannot deny the sexism are disillusioned by Stallman, while those who cannot accept the implications of his remark go to fantastic lengths to discredit those who have observed the obvious.

Next Page: The (sexist) elephant in the cubicle

Neither reaction strikes me as being realistic. Logically, people should be able to accept both that Stallman has made significant contributions to computing and that he is capable of making a sexist comment. One observation does not negate the other. But, in practice, the majority of people in the free software community seem incapable of holding both views at the same time -- even though both are true.

The reactions may reflect modern society at large, in which leaders are held to more rigid standards of behavior than private citizens. But another factor is probably the extreme idealism found throughout the free software community. When you believe that the community is fighting the good fight, you can easily start to assume that the community leaders are as perfect as you would wish them to be.

But Stallman's sainthood is only part of his comedy routine, and other leaders do not have sainthood status even as a joke. Under these circumstances, when leaders make a mistake, as some of them inevitably will, what else can the reactions be except exaggerated? The free software community is simply not allowing its leaders to be human.

The elephant in the cubicle

What compounds the problem is that sexism is an ongoing problem in free software, but many people are reluctant to admit the fact. As with the expectations of leaders, the reality is at odds with the idealistic image they have of the community.

Yet if sexism is not a problem, how else can you explain that women's participation in free software is much lower than their participation in proprietary software development -- less than one-twentieth, according to the keynote that Angela Byron delivered at this year's Open Web Vancouver conference? Why else do organizations like LinuxChix and Debian Women exist? Why else is the topic of how to get women more involved a constant refrain at conferences?

Yet inevitably, when sexism is mentioned, such as the infamous ad that appeared in Linux Journal a few years ago, the reaction is much the same as in the controversy over Stallman's keynote: denial, and an attempt to turn the accusations back on the accusers.

One reason that Stallman's comment may have generated so much discussion is that it was made soon after another incidence of sexism, the "Perform like a pr0n star" presentation delivered by Matt Aimonetti at the Golden Gate Ruby Conference in April.

In fact, the similarities between the two incidents are striking. In both cases, the sexism was the result of a joke taken too far at a large conference. Just as with Stallman's comment, a long online discussion followed Aimonetti's presentation, and it became evident that many women condemned it. As in the Stallman incident, the defense and apology given were considered inadequate by those making the accusation of sexism. And, perhaps most important of all, both sets of circumstances went largely unreported in the media while blogs were burning up with the discussion.

Coming one after the other, the two incidents highlight, more than either one individually, that sexism is a reoccurring problem in free software that is denied by almost everyone except the women it affects.

The voice of complicity

Stallman's keynote is likely to have immediate consequences: judging from Schlesinger's comments, he will not be invited to another GNOME conference for a long time. But as disturbing as his comment and justification undeniably are, to concentrate on them too much would be a waste of energy. For all his accomplishments, Stallman is one person, and, like anyone, he is capable of errors in judgment. We should deplore his comment and move on.

I would prefer to focus on the larger issues that both his remark and the reactions to it indicate. If free software cannot learn to expect less of its leaders or to eradicate the sexism that keeps reoccurring in it like an outbreak of malaria, then it will fall short of its ideals.

That, for me, is why I decided in the end to discuss Stallman's comment and the reactions to it. The topic may be tricky, but to keep silent, I believe, is to accept free software while it is less than it can be -- and that is not something that I want to do. Nor should anyone else.

ALSO SEE: Richard Stallman, Live and Unplugged

AND: Open Source Landmark: Mono Freed at Last?

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