Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce Why are people attacking RMS?

Why are people attacking RMS?

When the two main desktop projects catering to free and open source software - KDE and GNOME - held their annual desktop summit at the same place for the first time, they probably expected nothing but messages of peace and harmony to emanate.

Instead, the keynote speaker, Richard Matthew Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project, has become the focal point of any news about the summit.

Stallman is under attack for remarks he made, which are purported to be sexist. He has used the same or similar text many times before this but there have been no such allegations.

Suddenly, in the eyes of some, Stallman has become a sexist. But the timing, when it comes to attacking the  man, leads one to theorise that there may be other motivations behind the attacks.

I have heard Stallman speak - he visited Melbourne in October 2004 and I attended his talk which was organised by the Victorian branch of the Australian Computer Society.

He is a good speaker when it comes to taking an audience through the history of free software and serious matters - but he doesn't know how to carry a joke. He is poor at getting his humour across and even that night in Melbourne his St Ignucius routine fell flat. Nobody knew what on earth he was going on about - and there were plenty of older people present.

Stallman, who is of Jewish background, is an avowed atheist. The offending remarks he made at the summit, according to what claims to be a transcript of the same, are: "Then if you become a hacker you can celebrate that by having a foobar mitzvah, a ceremony in which the new hacker stands in front of the assembled congregation of hackers and chants through the lines of the system source code. 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."

Many people have taken him up on these words and claimed that he was being sexist. GNOME official David Schlesinger has been the loudest, while Matt Zimmerman, (corrected) chief technology officer of Canonical, has been close behind. GNOME and Canonical have close connections and this may not be exactly unrelated to these attacks.

And then there have been others who have accused him of various things - of even sanctioning rape.

I don't think Stallman's remarks are particularly tasteful, especially in an era of political correctness such as the one we live in. However, to accuse him of sexism, when he has clearly explained what he meant to convey, is a bit of a stretch.

CONTINUED


There are just a couple of points I'd like to make here. One, when the Debian project was surrounded by allegations of sexist remarks - and one female developer came out strongly against them - neither Schlesinger nor Zimmermann, a former Debian developer, was around to take up cudgels and beat the drums against sexism.

Both these courageous fighters for equal rights were missing in action.

Matthew Garrett, a former Debian developer and exceptionally gifted programmer, who has in the past criticised people over what he construed as sexism - to the extent that the person who wrote the alleged sexist post had to take it down - was nowhere to be seen. Garret has thrown his hat in the ring this time, though.

Indeed, only iTWire thought the story worthy of attention. None of the worthies who have come out swinging against Stallman even bothered to write a paragraph in support of women who were actually willing to come out and be quoted - despite the possibility that they could well be cold-shouldered by their own colleagues in the project as a result.

All this self-righteousness seems to be highly selective - that's the only conclusion I can draw.

It's also quite dirty - Schlesinger has gone to the extent of publishing a private email correspondence with Stallman. But then these tactics, from a GNOME official, should be expected, I guess. Having dealt with two media spokesmen from GNOME, one is acutely aware of the lack of professionalism that exists within GNOME.

Selective attacks like the ones on Stallman do lead to speculation. Stallman recently made a statement about it being risky to develop software in C#, and hence Mono. Whether these attacks on him have anything to do with that statement is open to speculation.

But there is one thing that can be said with certainty - many of today's open source people find Stallman inconvenient. They find his adherence to free software, to the principles that drove him to start the movement, and his occasional pointed statements annoying. They find that it gets in the way of making a quick buck.

Of course, Stallman is not right at every turn. He can be annoying at times with his insistence on minor details. But it is an inescapable fact that the massive ecospace which FOSS occupies now is due in no small way to the idealism of one man who walked out of a very highly-paid job one day because he wanted to produce a free (as in speech, not beer) operating system.

Some of those who have attacked Stallman have cited as justification for their purple prose the fact that there is a problem overall in FOSS when it comes to women. This is a mere figleaf.

The fact is the entire IT industry faces this problem. Once again, no anecdotal evidence here, gentle reader - my wife, a developer for the last 23 years, is often confronted by an all-male audience when she makes a presentation. At times, there may be one more woman in the group of 15 or thereabouts. And she has been telling me these tales since we met 22 years ago.

How many people have made it to the vice-presidential ranks in the world's biggest software company? Just two, Ida Cole and Jean Richardson, as far as I know. Trying to guise this attack on Stallman as a bid to do good for women is just so much hogwash.

I am no respecter of persons - if Stallman did do something that I thought was incorrect, he would get a roasting in these columns. But this time, I think it's the paragons of virtue who have attacked him who deserve a kick in the nether regions.

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.