RMS should step down

One of the hot topics of discussion in the free software and Linux communities recently has been the return of Richard Stallman to the Free Software Foundation board, which was announced on LibrePlanet 2021 with no prior notice to speakers and staff participating at the online event.

Stallman originally resigned after he proposed a poorly-timed, hypothetical defense of Marvin Minsky after the Epstein case on the MIT mailing list, which didn't go down very well in the climate. And the response to Stallman's return has been just as, if not more, critical as last time.

Following the announcement Stallman would be put back on the FSF board, an open letter to RMS and the FSF was drafted calling for Stallman to be removed from all leadership positions and the current FSF board to resign. The letter calls for people to boycott FSF and their events until these demands are met. The open letter also calls out a laundry list of behaviours of Stallman that they suggest make him an unsuitable leader.

In this post I am going to lay out my case for why Stallman (and the FSF board) should resign.

Pre-empting popular counter-arguments

First of all, I would like to pre-empt some counter-arguments that RMS supporters have levied against the open letter calling for his removal. This is because I keep seeing the same, poor arguments made repeatedly and I am not interested in discussing them for the thousandth time.

First of all, some RMS supporters seem highly inclined to strawman the open letter's complaints about RMS. Usually they focus on the last part of the letter, which claims that RMS's criticism of singular they is transphobic. The aim is to discredit the letter by pointing out that RMS is in favour of gender-neutral pronouns, but prefers his own neo-pronouns over the more widely spread singular they. This part of the letter, in my opinion, makes the weakest argument and thus it's no surprise RMS supporters would attack it as a weak point.

I personally don't think RMS is transphobic, or at least I don't think I can draw that conclusion that he is based on just his post on genderless pronouns. However, it's worth keeping in mind here that I, as a cis-gender person, am not an arbiter of what is transphobia and what is not, and people more in the know have said the Stallman's position is at least transphobic-adjacent. What I would say, personally, is that Stallman's argumentation against singular they is not productive since I feel singular they is more appealing to the mainstream than the neo-pronouns he proposes. Singular they has historical precedent and has been widely adopted for this purpose. I also think it's a bit of a dick move to attack people's pronoun choices purely to achieve some sort of a semantic consistency. The English language is so inconsistent that this small victory would, at best, be a drop in the ocean. As someone who natively speaks a language without gendered pronouns, I would absolutely love if English had standardized genderless pronouns, but in the meantime it's significantly easier to accept singular they and move on.

The second popular counter-argument focuses on the parts of the letter that critique Stallman's views. The line of argumentation goes something along the lines of these being philosophical hypotheticals and as such Stallman isn't advocating for these views, merely investigating them in the context of philosophy. Now, this would be all well and good, but Stallman isn't just accused of devil's advocacy, but also actual behaviour that he's exhibited at conferences, at MIT etc. that people have found unwelcoming and creepy. So, at best this only addresses a part of the reasons why people want RMS and the board to resign. This argument also doesn't account for any optics issues, since it doesn't necessarily reflect well on a serious political movement if the most visible leader argues in favour of pedophilia, necrophilia, zoophilia and eugenics. Now, to be entirely fair to Stallman, he has walked back on at least some of these claims.

The third popular counter-argument I have seen hand-waves all of the behaviours documented in the letter by claiming that Stallman has autism and is thus medically incapable of social awareness and following social norms. This line of argumentation has the problem that whether Stallman has autism or not is pure speculation, since he, at best, has said that he is "borderline" and hasn't claimed to have a diagnosis for the condition. Another problem is that the argument reduces autism to a binary state with little regard for the fact that autism can range from something very minor to something highly debilitating. I also don't think it would set a good precedent to let any type of breach of social norms go just on the assumption that the person might have autism and then making the further assumption that this would totally impair their ability for social awareness. A better way would be to address this behaviour and then seek the best ways to mitigate either the behaviour or the impacts of the behaviour on others on a case-by-case basis, with the help of different aids if necessary.

Ultimately in this Stallman scenario presumption of a medical excuse, particularly when it's based entirely hearsay, is not a good argument. I would even personally go far enough to say that even if Stallman had a condition that severely limited his social awareness, it still wouldn't affect my decision on whether he's suitable for a leadership position. Not everyone is able to fulfill every role, and we shouldn't keep a person in a role they aren't able to succeed in.

Also, no, not every criticism or opposition of RMS is a plot by the evil creators of proprietary software.

Why RMS should be removed from leadership

My opinion for RMS's removal from leadership has two main sides. One side concerns the optics of the free software movement and the other concerns free software ecosystem health.

RMS is bad for the optics of the free software movement

When does the FSF get mainstream attention? When Stallman says or does something odd or either resigns from FSF or gets brought back on the FSF. Stallman rarely makes new, interesting arguments for the free software movement. Instead he's the guy people bring on to go over the same talking points and whenever he's not doing that, he's probably eating toe nails or acting obnoxious. He's a meme and any of his advocacy is drowned out in the mainstream by everything else he does. And while he is attached to the FSF, the FSF will suffer the same problems.

We live in an era when, despite the widespread adoption of FOSS software, the free software movement is possibly as important as ever. The movement needs to gain actual relevance and political power and to achieve this, it needs to appear serious and have a polished image. Stallman's leadership isn't compatible with this goal and will, at best, act like an air brake and at worst like a rocket engine pointing in reverse.

Right now the FSF looks more like a personality cult than a foundation with a mission. And the most leaderly thing RMS could do in this situation is realize he is an obstacle for his own goals and resign.

RMS is bad for free software ecosystem health

Stallman's controversial opinions are enough to derail the optics of the free software movement, but his actions at various events, of which new accounts seem to pop up daily, also have a negative internal effect on free software. His strange, creepy and confrontational conduct has the potential to alienate valuable contributors.

Free software is largely built on people volunteering their time and effort. Corporate or contractual FOSS maintenance and development are very real things, but volunteers and functioning communities are still very much valuable to the cause, and we need a steady influx of new developers, designers, technical writers, advocates and testers to replace the ones that inevitably burn out, retire or get hit by buses. This means that the communities pushing for these projects and working on them must be appealing and welcoming. The load-bearing asshole only bears a load for so long and eventually their spine will snap if they drive away everyone that could help keep the roof standing.

This is why projects like Outreachy and good community maintenance are important. They allow us to increase the pool of contributors and retain them for longer. Stallman's conduct has the opposite effect.

The board should probably go too

The biggest flaw of the FSF board is that it's been acting in a very inefficient and tone-deaf way with the regards to dealing with the RMS issue. They seemingly haven't realized that Stallman's antics are bad PR for them and I don't think they properly gamed out the effects of bringing him back on. In this regard they seem to have put person above purpose.

The board's scramble to salvage the situation after the fact also doesn't inspire confidence. They've made promises of increased transparency and democracy, but these only came after the backlash. Meanwhile they also made a statement defending Stallman's right to free speech, which seemed blind and deaf to the fact that people criticizing Stallman are exercising their own free speech.

FSF is in the process of bleeding staff and financial patrons and the board seems unable to resolve the issue. All of these things seem like good enough reasons for the board to resign and new leadership to take the reins.

But wouldn't RMS's resignation be the end of the free software movement?

No. Even though Stallman's views have been incredibly influential in the creation of the free software movement, I think it would be silly to argue that the movement couldn't exist without him at the helm. There's a number of ideological positions people advocate for whose creators are long dead. Stallman has relayed his ideas to the people, who should be perfectly capable of perpetuating the movement. In fact, if Stallman is unique in his ability to push for this change, then the movement was dead on arrival.

The removal of Stallman from leadership positions likely wouldn't even affect his ability to advocate for the cause. Nothing would stop him from writing on the topic or participating in conferences and events that are interested in hearing out his ideas. He could no doubt even act as an advisor, either in official or unofficial capacity, for the FSF board without being directly on it.

To wrap things up

FSF seems headed for irrelevance unless they manage to alter their course. This isn't a good thing, since the work of the free software movement isn't anywhere close to being done. More and more power in tech is being focused on a smaller and smaller group of massive corporations, who are more than willing to lead their users into walled gardens and give them worse products that contribute to e-waste, mental health issues, radicalization and the general loss of autonomy.

But as it stands, the FSF has seemingly lost the confidence of a big chunk of the FOSS community, with many big names on organizational level having signed the open letter. With a loss of confidence of FOSS supporters and messaging unappealing to the mainstream, the FSF seems to serve less and less of a purpose.

Luckily other foundations are still continuing the fight even while the FSF is in a tailspin. But ultimately it would be better for everyone if the FSF stopped foot-gunning itself and attempted to recover and resume effectively fighting for free software, instead of just rehashing the same talking points with decreasing relevance.