Richard Stallman, founder and president of the Free Software Foundation, has resigned as the president and from its board of directors. The announcement has come after a relentless campaign by a few activists and media person to remove Stallman for his views on the Epstein victims. Read more to get the details.
A little background to the Stallman controversy
If you are not aware of the context, let me provide some details.
Richard Stallman, a 66 years old computer scientist at MIT, is best known for founding the free software movement in 1983. He also developed several software like GCC, Emacs under the GNU project. The free software movement inspired a number of projects to choose the open source GPL license. Linux is one of those projects.
Jeffrey Epstein was a billionaire American financier. He was convicted as a sex offender for running an escort service (included underage girls) for the rich and elites in his social service. He committed suicide in his prison cell while still being tried for sex trafficking charges.
Marvin Lee Minsky was an eminent computer scientist at MIT. He founded the Artificial Intelligence lab at MIT. He died at the age of 88 in 2016. After his death, an Epstein victim named Misky as one of the people she was “directed to have sex” with on Jeffrey Epstein’s private island while she was a minor.
So what all this has to do with Richard Stallman? It all started with an email Stallman sent to MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) mailing list over proposed protest by MIT students and affiliates regarding Jeffrey Epstein’s donation (to MIT’s AI lab).
The announcement of the Friday event does an injustice to Marvin Minsky:
“deceased AI ‘pioneer’ Marvin Minsky (who is accused of assaulting
one of Epstein’s victims )”
The injustice is in the word “assaulting”. The term “sexual assault” is so vague and slippery that it facilitates accusation inflation: taking claims that someone did X and leading people to think of it as Y, which is much worse than X.
The accusation quoted is a clear example of inflation. The reference reports the claim that Minsky had sex with one of Epstein’s harem. (See https://www.theverge.com/2019/8/9/20798900/marvin-minsky-jeffrey-epstein-sex-trafficking-island-court-records-unsealed.)
Let’s presume that was true (I see no reason to disbelieve it).
The word “assaulting” presumes that he applied force or violence, in some unspecified way, but the article itself says no such thing.
Only that they had sex.
We can imagine many scenarios, but the most plausible scenario is that she presented herself to him as entirely willing. Assuming she was being coerced by Epstein, he would have had every reason to tell her to conceal that from most of his associates.
I’ve concluded from various examples of accusation inflation that it is absolutely wrong to use the term “sexual assault” in an accusation.
Whatever conduct you want to criticize, you should describe it with a specific term that avoids moral vagueness about the nature of the criticism.
The call for removing Stallman
‘Epstein’ is an extremely controversial ‘topic’ in the USA. Stallman’s reckless ‘intellectual discourse’ on a sensitive matter like this would not have gone well and it didn’t go well.
A robotics engineer received this forwarded email from her friend and started a campaign to remove Stallman. She didn’t want a clarification or apology. All she wanted was to remove Stallman even if it means ‘burning MIT to the ground’.
At least Richard Stallman is not accused of raping anyone. But is that our highest standard? The standard that this prestigious institution holds itself to? If this is what MIT wants to defend; if this is what MIT wants to stand for, then, yes, burn it to the ground…Salem, Robotics student who started Remove Stallman campaign
…Remove everyone, if we must, and let something much better be built from the ashes.
Salem’s rant was initially ignored by mainstream digital media. But it was picked by activists who fight against meritocracy and gender bias in the software industry.
A Twitter thread by Sage Sharp on how Stallman’s behavior negatively impact people in tech:
It’s not that Stallman is a saint. His crude, insensitive and sexist jokes have been doing the rounds for years. You can read about it here and here.
Soon the news was picked by the big media houses like The Vice, The Daily Beast, Futurism etc. They painted Stallman as a defender of Jeffrey Epstein. Amidst the outcry, executive director of GNOME threatened to end the relationship between GNOME and FSF.
Eventually, Stallman resigned first from MIT and now from Free Software Foundation.
A dangerous precedence?
All it took five days of activism to remove a person from an organization he created and worked for more than thirty years. And this is when Stallman wasn’t even remotely involved in the sex trafficking scandal.
Some of these ‘activists’ have also targeted Linux creator Linus Torvalds in the past. The management behind the Linux Foundation foresaw the growing trend of activism in the tech industry and hence they put up a code of conduct for Linux kernel development in place and forced Torvalds to undergo training to improve his behavior. If they had not taken the corrective step, probably Torvalds would have been a goner by now.
Ignoring reckless and sexist behavior of tech stalwarts is not acceptable but neither is the mob mentality of lynching anyone who disagrees with a certain popular view. I don’t agree with Stallman and his past remarks but I am also not happy that he has been (forced to?) resign in this manner.
Techrights has some interesting take on it that you can read here and here.
What do you think of the entire episode? Please share your views and opinion but in a civilized manner. Abusive comments will not be published. Arguments and discussion must be civil.