Richard Stallman, Leadership, and Sexism: Page 2

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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


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Tags: software, Gnome, KDE, FOSS, Stallman


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