Richard Stallman, Leadership, and Sexism: Page 3

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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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Tags: software, Gnome, KDE, FOSS, Stallman

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