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Richard Stallman’s Disgrace

Steven Levy, writing for Wired last week:

Yesterday RMS resigned from MIT and the Free Software Foundation he founded. For those who have followed his free-software movement, Stallman leaving MIT is like the big dome on Massachusetts Avenue itself getting an eviction notice. But after decades of tone-deaf comportment and complaints now emerging from women about his behavior, Stallman’s time was up. […]

Generally, the word inappropriate doesn’t seem to be in his vocabulary. He once invited a friend of mine to lunch at a fancy restaurant, and she accepted, on the condition that he comb his hair and wear suitable attire. After a pleasant meal, he asked her if she minded if he danced. (Stallman is famously a lover of folk dancing.) “Go ahead,” she said, and he pranced around the tables, solo, in high-stepping glee, oblivious to the discomfort of diners.

That same obliviousness probably led to jokes in bad taste on email lists, and the scrawled name card on this door at MIT, where he was until yesterday a Visiting Scientist. “Richard Stallman,” it read, in black Sharpie, “Knight for Justice (Also: Hot Ladies).”

Stallman is brilliant — software he’s written is at the bedrock layer of modern computing. He’s also a certifiable creep. Circa 2011, I posted a series of links regarding Stallman’s weirdness and creepiness, including video of him picking something off his foot and eating it, his deeply hypocritical stance on cell phones and supermarket discount cards, and his truly bizarre and inadvertently hilarious 7,000-word rider for speaking engagements. Also, The Stallman Dialogues, a short-lived parody site that used actual quotes from Stallman.

Stallman, when traveling, prefers to stay at the home of his hosts rather than in a hotel. On the old version of my podcast, Dan Benjamin and I had a long laugh (starting at the 11-minute mark) about an anecdote relayed to me by a longtime DF reader, who invited Stallman to speak at a conference he had put together. Here’s the relevant section of the email:

The biggest thing to watch is to ensure that Richard does **NOT** stay with anyone you care about. In both instances of which I am aware, [names omitted], the homeowner actually burned the sheets after Richard left. Simply throwing them away was insufficient.

Here’s a 2008 story from Rodrigo Stulzer, translated from the original Portuguese, “The Terrible Week Richard Stallman Stayed in My House”:

On the day of the event Stallman changed his shirt and asked me for a bucket. Phew, I thought, finally he’s going to take a shower!! He had been in my house for five days, and so far had not taken a shower. I brought him a bucket and the only thing he did was wash his hair inside!

Feedback from readers and listeners regarding my mockery of Stallman was polarized. Most seemed to enjoy it, but a few strongly objected to it. One example:

What’s the purpose of attacking someone important who is known to be quite eccentric? Why the sudden rash of hit jobs? Is there ANY journalistic justification for this?

I just don’t fucking get this at all. It’s cruel and unnecessary.

Another:

The recent episode of the Talk Show really disappointed me. Hearing Mr. Gruber, repeatedly and without provocation, attack Mr. Stallman was completely distasteful and is not up to the quality that this show generally produces.

I know your shows are meant to be funny and ad-lib’d to a degree but resorting to a random character attack is not something I want to listen to.

I know you don’t like e-mail but I really feel strongly about keeping this kind of garbage off the air. Nerd/geek culture is about acceptance not snobbishness and if your show claims to be for nerds, I don’t think it has place for this low-brow bullying.

Eccentricity and nonconformity are fine. “Here’s to the crazy ones” certainly applies to Stallman’s work. But there’s nothing excusable about terrible hygiene and profound rudeness. Befouling the room in which you are a houseguest is not being quirky — it’s being a pig. You want to eat your toe jam, fine. But do it in private, not while you’re sitting in front of an audience.

I regret none of what I published regarding Stallman’s disgusting hygiene, hypocrisy, and general rudeness. What I do regret is not bringing to light what is truly Stallman’s deepest shame: his disgraceful behavior toward women.

I mostly agree with Steven Levy’s story at Wired from which I quoted above. But I disagree profoundly with the headline: “Richard Stallman and the Fall of the Clueless Nerd”. Clueless removes agency; it sounds like absolution — that he didn’t know any better. Perhaps that applies to his hygiene, but I doubt it. It probably does apply to some of his general weirdness. But I simply refuse to accept that his abhorrent behavior toward women was in any way “clueless”. He knew exactly what he was doing — and worse, so did MIT.

Selam Jie Gano, whose “Remove Richard Stallman” post started the ball rolling toward his resignations from both MIT and the FSF, followed up with a post relaying numerous first-hand reports from women subjected to Stallman’s harassment. One example:

When I was a teen freshman, I went to a buffet lunch at an Indian restaurant in Central Square with a graduate student friend and others from the AI lab. I don’t know if he and I were the last two left, but at a table with only the two of us, Richard Stallman told me of his misery and that he’d kill himself if I didn’t go out with him.

I felt bad for him and also uncomfortable and manipulated. I did not like being put in that position — suddenly responsible for an “important” man. What had I done to get into this situation? I decided I could not be responsible for his living or dying, and would have to accept him killing himself. I declined further contact.

He was not a man of his word or he’d be long dead.

Another story, from Christina Warren, on meeting Stallman after attending one of his lectures:

After the talk, the person I went with (a guy my age) wanted to talk to him, so we went up after and waited in line to chat or whatever. Almost immediately, RMS started staring at me. And not in a nice way.

It was leering. It was uncomfortable. When we talked to him, he didn’t look at my friend or at me in the eye, he literally stared at my chest the entire time.

That Stallman’s behavior was tolerated by MIT and the free software community for decades borders on the absurd. He wasn’t brought down by ill-conceived comments in a recent mailing list thread regarding Marvin Minsky and Jeffrey Epstein; he was brought down by decades of his own inexcusable behavior finally coming home to roost.

Stallman’s harassment of women — compounded greatly by his esteemed position at MIT and the world at large — should have been the main story. His rankness should have been the postscript. I regret emphasizing only what I found humorous about Stallman, and not what was truly outrageous and morally reprehensible.

[Update 7 October 2019: Please read this correction regarding an erroneous allegation originally contained in, but now removed from, this article.]