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People are complaining a lot that Stallman isn't complying with the social norm that one does not speak ill of the dead. (And of course there are people who are personally offended because they identify with Steve Jobs and put Apple stickers on their car, which is just kind of pathetic. We'll leave them to one side.) Some of them go so far as to argue that Stallman would be more effective if he complied with those social norms, and that the FSF would be more effective if it had a spokesperson who complied with social norms.

The point that they're missing is that Stallman is effective at what he does precisely because he violates social norms — much like Steve Jobs. Let me tell a story.

On the 9th of September of this year, I was at the Conferencia Internacional de Software Libre here in Buenos Aires. Partido Justicialista, the ruling party of Argentina, has decided that free software is a good idea, and has been trying to promote it. One of the things that they're doing is a program called Conectar Igualdad ("Connecting Equality"), in which they're distributing one netbook to every public high school student in the country, 1.7 million so far, dual-booting with Linux and Windows, bought with the country's recently-renationalized pension funds.

Another of the things they did was that they organized this conference, last year and this year, which was hosted by the National Library. Last year they had Jon "maddog" Hall give the keynote, and he talked about this thin-client internet-access project that he's been putting together with a bunch of folks in Brazil, which really sounds pretty awesome. This year they had Stallman give the keynote instead, and the auditorium was so crowded that I couldn't get in far enough to see him, so I hung out in the library's café instead. (This is Argentina; cafés are a necessity of civilized life, so there is one in the library.)

So I didn't see the talk, and I didn't even see Stallman on his way out, but boy, did I hear about it afterwards in the café. Stallman apparently spent quite a bit of time ripping up the Conectar Igualdad program, because of the dual-booting, because of the lack of support for kids actually running Linux, because of the lack of source code for the modified Linux kernel that was actually running on the machines, and for other reasons.

A person who obeyed social norms would not have considered doing this. After all, he was the guest of the Argentine government, who had invited him to come speak at this conference in order to reinforce their appearance of commitment to free software. Instead, he accepted the invitation and then spent his time shredding their appearance of commitment to free software. What a socially incompetent loser, eh?

A week later I was at a party, and I happened to talk to a woman who works for Conectar Igualdad. She brought up Stallman's speech and said how she had been so happy about it, because he had said all the things that she had been unhappy about but hadn't been able to bring up. And apparently now there are meetings inside Conectar Igualdad to fix the problems that Stallman so publicly criticized.

Stallman is what is colloquially known as an asshole. He has very little concern for other people's feelings or for social norms. And it's that very unbending nature that makes him an effective change agent. Deferring to social norms would cripple him.

On the other hand, if he were at least aware of the feelings of other people, perhaps he could be leading a much more effective organization, instead of alienating even most of his closest friends over the years.

I was going to say something similar but you've done it much better, with a story to boot. So I'll just chip in with one point I had that you didn't cover directly.

A lot of the posts here are generally of the form "you can't speak ill of the newly dead". (Why? Because that's what regular people do, that's why). But adhering to social norms takes away from freedom. Indifference to what society prescribes is consistent with RMS's beliefs.

Call him what you want, but the man is consistent.

I'm guessing a lot of the angry responders here will have similar "I'm glad he's gone" feelings on RMS's death. Would not publishing those feelings give you the moral high ground over those who do?

How about this: "Speaking ill of the newly dead increases suffering unnecessarily."?

But I think the larger point that both you and the gp are missing is that, sure, sometimes it's effective to violate social norms. Steve Jobs was famously blunt with his criticism in an environment that's excessively polite.

But RMS often violates social norms in a way that does little to advance his cause, the gp's story notwithstanding. Maybe this event was an appropriate time to violate the particular social norm of not criticizing your hosts. But it seems that, increasingly, most of RMS's violations close people's minds to the ideas he champions, instead of persuading them.

The point is to be persuasive. If it's effective to be shockingly blunt, great. Expressing relief at the death of Steve Jobs? Anecdotally, it does nothing to persuade me, and everything to dissuade me.

RMS is an extremist, and extremists never get their way - they do, however, pull the center towards them.

If RMS were a nice guy, who would you hear raising these issues? There's no real names springing to mind, not that have the kind of recognisability that RMS has (who's known by his mere initials, no less)

Yes, Stallman often violates social norms in a way that does little to advance his cause. My friend Sofia was volunteering at Wikimania a few years ago, and when he couldn't answer some question he asked her, he yelled at her and called her an idiot. She laughed about it at the time but she also dropped her involvement with Wikimedia.

It probably seems to you like this kind of behavior is increasing, but I think that's some kind of cognitive bias. You'll probably never talk to Sofia unless you come to Buenos Aires, and so you never would have heard about her story if I hadn't told you about it. Similarly you probably didn't know about the conferences Stallman's been uninvited from over the decades, the old friends who don't talk to him any more; you probably didn't even know that the FSF had two founders. Because people forget stuff like that, or they don't talk about it and then new people never learn, and then they use Emacs every day. So when you see him committing some shocking social faux pas, you naturally think that this is some kind of new phenomenon that never could have occurred 15 or 20 years ago.

It's not.

Stallman pointed out that what I said is nonsense; I didn't mean "when he couldn't answer some question he asked her" but rather "when she couldn't answer some question he asked her".

"The point that they're missing is that Stallman is effective at what he does precisely because he violates social norms..."

anecdote about Stallman ripping people up in Argentina

"A person who obeyed social norms would not have considered doing this."

You know, there is a gulf of difference between having the courage to confront people who violate your principles and wishing someone dead. Steve Jobs never put a gun to anyone's head and forced them to buy an Apple computer.

The fact that Stallman is known as an asshole is nothing to be proud of. Steve Jobs had a reputation for being tough, but he also had a reputation for bringing deals together and building products that brought joy to millions of people.

Arguably, Steve Jobs has put FOSS software in the hands of more desktop users than Stallman has. Every Apple computer comes loaded with lots of FOSS software. I'm sure that has every Stallman supporters' head spinning, but it's a fact.

Stallman did not 'wish anyone dead'


This type of response reminds me very much of the type of thing that would come from the Stallman camp. "I didn't wish him dead, I simply hold a dismissive view of his life." Reminds me of, "I didn't lie, I simply omitted the truth." Delivered with the same heaping pile of snark.

I suppose I could understand if Steve Jobs had committed some heinous atrocity, but we're talking about computers here. It's so ridiculous, it borders on sociopathic behavior. It definitely shows a complete lack of perspective.

There are people here who believe that what happens with computers might actually be important — that who controls our communications and computational technology in the 21st century is a significant political issue. Stallman is another such person.

I am not "in" the Stallman camp, but I can recognise character assassination when I see it.

You know, there is a gulf of difference between having the courage to confront people who violate your principles and wishing someone dead.

Aaaand I quote: "I'm not glad he's dead"

By the way, the New York Times is publishing an op-ed violating the same norm, with much the same points as Stallman: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/06/opinion/jobs-looked-to-the...

There's a big difference between bluntly speaking your ideals and just being petty/spiteful.

I think its a pity that Jobs was never able to fully embrace the idea of empowering end-users to be in control of their computers, but RMS's comment makes it sound like Jobs the person was his mortal enemy. Does RMS really think that future leadership of Apple will be more likely to embrace software freedom?!?

No, he hopes that they are able to further their goal of "computer jails" less effectively...as in he hopes Tim Cook runs Apple in to the ground. His quote is as follows:

"Unfortunately, that influence continues despite his absence. We can only hope his successors, as they attempt to carry on his legacy, will be less effective."

Apparently, RMS would seem to prefer that technology be exclusively Free and used by an tiny elite group of hackers than by millions of non-programmers and only partly Free.

Dear RMS: when it comes to creating good UIs, FOSS has never succeeded in keeping up with non-FOSS. Were it not for Jobs, there would be far fewer computer users and the free software movement might well be even further behind.

>Apparently, RMS would seem to prefer that technology be exclusively Free and used by an tiny elite group of hackers than by millions of non-programmers and only partly Free.

It doesn't have to be this way. Thats' the point. There is no reason free software has to not be usable by the masses.

I wouldn't saay never.

FF vs IE for example.

Of course I would 100% agree if you are talking about windows/OS X vs linux in general.

I guess I could have answered my own question and made a direct point of what I was trying to say - RMS's comment is wrong because it's coming from a position of weakness and a desire for a closed software market where users have to choose inferior free software. Free software will never triumph with that attitude.

"The point that they're missing is that Stallman is effective at what he does precisely because he violates social norms — much like Steve Jobs."

The big different being that Steve Jobs would have made a comment like this. I'm not canonizing Jobs, but this was the worst thing I've heard Stallman say, ever.

Kragen, I agree with most of what you’ve said about RMS. Specifically, I believe that pointless adherence to social norms can often make it difficult to fight for an important cause. However, your assumption about RMS and his relationships with his closest friends is something that I’m quite sure you don’t have enough information to make any conclusion about.

I am, actually, one of RMS’ closest friends and can publicly confirm that he hasn’t alienated me, yet I have had other friends (who are oft-compared to RMS) who have, in fact, alienated me. Spending lots of time in geeky Free Software world often leads me to form relationships with people who are difficult to be friends with. Yet, RMS isn’t even in the top ten list of people I know in the Free Software community who tend to alienate people.


For Christ's sake.

Stallman aside, can one bring up those sensitive issues without needing to be inflammatory? They could, perhaps, use carefully crafted questions to get them thinking or other positive argumentative/teaching methods.

Being inflammatory seems to be the poor man's approach to getting others thinking.

He could communicate even more effectively if he wanted to. It’s not necessary to violate norms all the time. That’s all I’m saying.

I think RMS is stuck in the classic Aspie hell of having strong, logically consistent beliefs that he can't communicate in a way that is emotionally sensitive enough to persuade Normals.

I don't think he enjoys this or does it on purpose; I think he's cognitively trapped.

Stallman's response:

Your article states a long list of criticisms against me, and I doubt that they are valid.

In particular, I am sure the story about Sofia must be garbled. I would not even _think_ that someone was an idiot because she asked me a question I could not answer. So I don't believe I said that.

I can only guess what did happen. Perhaps she asked a question that made no sense, and I said so. Perhaps when she heard "That question makes no sense", she understood it as a personal attack, although it wasn't one. This is a kind of misinterpretation that people often make. With this kind of misinterpretation, she might have believed incorrectly that I had called her an idiot.

I can't say this is what happened, but it is at least plausible. Various other kinds of misunderstanding are plausible too. However, it is unlikely it happened as she told you. I sometimes utter harsh rebukes, but they are generally about something important.

That might seem like a surprising claim. After all, isn't it well known that I have zero social skills, and insult people for no reason? That is the impression your article gives.

Many people tell stories where I do that; if you collect them and present their side as undisputed fact, I sound like a real jerk. Thus, anyone who gets into a dispute with me finds it easy to say, "Stallman was gratuitously nasty again," and a segment of the public will nod in sympathy. Therefore, such stories tend to accumulate.

One point in the collection is that I have been "uninvited" from conferences. I think I can guess one conference I won't be invited back to: CISL in Argentina. After what I said there about the Condenar a Maldad program, which distributes dual-boot computers in which GNU+Linux (see http://www.gnu.org/gnu/gnu-linux-faq.html) is present but many classes require students to run Windows, they probably won't invite me again.

My criticism at CISL was necessary, given how much of the organized free software movement in Argentina had drifted into praising and supporting that program. I stand by what I said. But if you want to criticize me a few years from now, you could accurately say I was "uninvited from a conference" with CISL in mind. Without giving details, included in a list of many other such criticisms, it will sure make me sound bad.

What about the rest of the list? I'm not perfect, so maybe some of them were my mistakes. However, you shouldn't suppose I'm at fault just because someone criticizes me.

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