Richard Stallman, Leadership, and Sexism

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.


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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..."

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Tags: software, Gnome, KDE, FOSS, Stallman

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