During the Gran Canaria Desktop Summit, Richard M. Stallman of the Free Software Foundation (and the Superfluous Introduction Award goes to…) gave a keynote speech. Said keynote speech raised a few eyebrows in the Free software community because of a number of questionable remarks regarding women in technology. David “Lefty” Schlesinger, member of the GNOME Advisory Board and active in the mobile open source community, took issue with RMS’ remarks and decided to call him out on it. The response he got was… Less than satisfying.
Before we enter into this discussion, I want to touch on the subject of publishing private emails without permission, since that’s exactly what Schlesinger has done by publishing Stallman’s replies. Even though it doesn’t seem like RMS is having any problems with it (that we know of), we obviously don’t condone this behaviour. Still, the points raised by Schlesinger are very valid, and warrant discussion.
So, what’s the fuss all about? In an email to RMS, Schlesinger detailed a number of remarks and actions that he, and many people he talked to, found objectionable, especially when it comes to women. RMS’ tendency to interrupt people mid-question or to dicard questions as “silly” is one thing, but his remarks regarding women are indeed, well, sexist. Lefty wrote in his email to RMS:
The more significant problem was your comments regarding “EMAC virgins”, which you defined as being specifically “_women_ who had never used EMACS”, and for whom being “relieved” of this “virginity” was a “holy duty”. My reaction, and the reaction of a large number of members of the audience with whom I’ve spoken was one of great dismay.
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”. I (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.
Another point that Lefty raises in his email is about RMS’ obvious criticism of religion, but the main point is the sexist nature of the speech. Lefty further asked that RMS offers an apology, because of the many people who felt offended by the talk – he claims he talked to about 100 people about this issue, and indeed, some of the attendees of the speech agree with Lefty in the comments.
In addition, there’s a reply from a women involved with open source who attended the same speech a few years ago – she found it to be offensive as well. “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 specifically.” She stated she no longer attends RMS’ speeches. “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,” she adds.
RMS replied to the email Lefty sent him, and this reply sidestepped most of the important issues. In fact, RMS feels that he has been “wronged” and “unjustly criticised”, and he believes he doesn’t owe anyone an apology. He states that he has never had any complaints about this speech before, and as such, the complaints are invalid. Well, maybe that’s because… There aren’t many women in technology or open source to begin with, Mr Stallman? Remember this xkcd comic?
Two more emails were shared among the two, but no resolution came out of it.
I find this a rather interesting discussion, mostly because RMS is kind of the primary figurehead of the Free software movement. I think most of us can agree that we’d like Free software to improve and proliferate, but if your main advocate is a figure like RMS, aren’t you just limiting yourself? How can you take someone like that seriously? His contributions to the Free software movement are huge, but does that excuse him for being an asshole? (excuse my choice of words).
RMS actually gets invited to talks like this at conferences – and he gets paid for it too. But do you really want to invite someone who then just goes around acting like a weirdo, offending your community? And then, when he gets called out for it, starts playing the victim instead of just apologising? People do not come to a technology conference to be insulted and offended – it’s not a comedy club.
Some argue that by standing up for women, people like Lefty are actually affirming the idea that women need help and protection. I find this a nonsensical train of thought; how are women going to stand up for themselves in this case when there are no women to begin with? But even if there were women – I see no problem with standing up for minorities you’re not part of. I call that common decency.
This discussion is not about whether or not it’s wrong to offend with jokes and humour – trust me, I am all for that. It keeps people sharp. I dislike the political correctness nonsense that’s been travelling around the world these past few yeas. Still, there are times and places for such humour, and a serious technological conference is not one of them.