Bonum Certa Men Certa

Letter of Support for Richard Stallman - Doing Better in Community

From Karrie Peterson[1]

Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 4.0) for this page, albeit Peterson's article may be licensed differently.

How do you support someone you’ve known for years who is unfairly attacked and publicly maligned? Subjected to a mass campaign of accusations and name-calling by people who demonstrably don’t know or purposely disregard the facts? How do you contribute to fairness and understanding without just “joining a side, let’s see who wins?”

This letter of support for RMS is my effort. Public support in the face of unfair public attack seems necessary to me, and my hope is to put some energy toward better community dialog.

My letter is for people who are still struggling, as I am, to find the way forward, to learn from this painful and harmful series of events. To heal and redress. To nourish a welcoming and inclusive community rather than hurl names at one another and ostracize people.

I’m not addressing the way journalists misrepresented RMS, that seems unquestionably wrong and not debatable. I’m focused instead on the painful consequences for our liberation movements of leaping to judgment, weaponizing buzzwords and treating accusations as evidence.

What happened to RMS, in the maelstrom following the Epstein scandal, struck me as a disinformation campaign. The loudest attacks on RMS followed patterns I’ve experienced myself in some subcultures. Those patterns of “winners vs. losers” and macho name-calling, pushing for “taking sides” rather than for understanding and reflection. All of this was re-upped in the same vicious manner in March 2021, when Richard’s return to the FSF was announced.

Richard, on the other hand, has reflected, admitted his own concern for harm he may have done, and never resorted to any name calling despite the cost he has personally borne as a result of the attacks on him.

My letter addresses two topics, my personal experiences with RMS and my sense of community fairness.

Personal experience

When I first heard Richard Stallman speak, in San Diego in 2002, he was on a platform with Lawrence Lessig. When RMS spoke, I thought “This is genius.” RMS thinks about and works on stuff I will never fully understand but in his presentation that day, he drew me in with his uncompromising principles, ability to think through systems and their consequences, and the directness and simplicity of his language—no academic jargon or superiority. His tone was “and you can do this too, you can join in.”

As a newbie librarian, what I was hearing at my university library was that these monopolistic publishers putting human knowledge behind paywalls and proprietary platforms were our friends and that libraries—whose social mission is to share and preserve knowledge—could no longer fully lead our own mission in the digital age, we’d have to give over core parts of our mission to for-profit companies. In the face of suffocating, neo-liberal, “let’s be realistic” horribleness that dominated those conversations, RMS represented a lifeline, and I began to find others who had a vision of freedom I could share.

Long after I heard RMS speak, I got a job at MIT. I saw RMS on campus one day and, I introduced myself and gushed in a kind of goofy way about how much his work had meant to me as a librarian. RMS was so kind! I don’t actually remember how we re-connected after that, but I found he was open to being friends and sometimes including me in his social gatherings or sharing work-in-progress writing.

And of course, RMS pushed me to do more than just support free software in the abstract—he got me reading, joining the FSF, and enlisting other people to support free software.

I didn’t always relate to Richard’s style at first, and I remember being puzzled by the “pleasure card” until he explained the peculiar humor in it. I treasure that card now, maybe it’s an age thing but I love his sense of humor. I also eventually came to find his absolutely logical approach quite relaxing, e.g. when he would say “I can’t answer your question, it doesn’t make sense to me.” With so much illogic about, logic can be wonderfully relaxing. In our conversations, he might say something like “that’s just wrong” and yet it never struck me as arrogant because he would explain and hear me out. Over the course of being his friend, I moved from kind of tolerating his different way of thinking to embracing and valuing the way his mind works. #card

When the maelstrom erupted, I reached out and was personally supportive to Richard as you would be to any friend in need. At the same time, I am a feminist and committed to social justice, so I dived in and read what I could, tried to figure out for myself what was happening. After all, Richard is my friend and an intellectual mentor, he is not my cult leader. So I wanted to understand before I engaged.

I made myself read a lot of things aimed at RMS that disgusted me and made me sad, some stories that made me feel sorry for people, and many things that made me angry. I read new things and re-read old things RMS has written. I didn’t see anything that justified the virulent attacks, all I saw was a lot of dirty fighting.

Personally, I’m just left with this worry: that we’ll refuse to listen to, consider and benefit from diversity of opinions in our movements because, well, we just don’t want to.

I’m asking myself, can we really learn to be inclusive when thinking differently is involved?

Opinions about community and the struggle for freedom

Will we achieve a free society without free software? I don’t think so.

Does ubiquitous free software require a strong movement? Yes, I believe this, given what we’re up against. Fighting ubiquitous surveillance and the dangers of proprietary software is a global struggle.

When conflict within liberation movements is not principled, I think it’s dangerous. What I observed in the ad hominem attacks on RMS looked a lot like clique behavior and, in some cases, made mewonder about people using personal attacks to try and prevail in political differences.

I don't agree with stuff like this: arguments with RMS that were formulated as attacks, as if no reasonable person could be allowed to disagree. Equating expression of opinion as being personally harmed. Taking on the mantle of speaking for whole populations, unasked. I’m not repeating the postings I saw because aggression like that is traumatizing. Like so many others, I am soul weary of being oppressed by the system and then further drained by cliques, vile name-calling and divisive infighting.

Disoriented communities and divisiveness serve somebody’s agenda, I wonder whose. Especially when dialog, and learning and growth are an option.

I want to see Richard’s leadership affirmed, his principled and revolutionary thinking understood, his humanity acknowledged and respected, and his contributions used and built on. I want that because I want free software to be normalized as essential to our liberation. The movement needs the best thinkers working together and resolving differences in principled ways.

The Establishment puts pressure on freedom movements in ways that are sometimes hard to detect, but that pressure is felt and has its desired effects. Historically, that pressure lures some of us away with rewards, drives others out with calumny and viciousness, and creates distrust and disorientation to undermine our organizations. We have all seen this over and over again. With AI and machine learning on the rise and spreading rapidly into surveillance of our civic and personal lives, the stakes for free software and transparent computing are incredibly high.

Freedom struggles depend on the ability of people to come together, in solidarity, for a common purpose. The revolutionary ideas of free software will help us get free if we learn and grow together and fundamentally get along with mutual respect.

It’s always been up to us, how this story goes.

1. With a background in political and community organizing, Karrie Peterson (she, her, hers) is the Head, Liaison, and Instruction & Reference Services at MIT Libraries[2]. Her support for gender fluidity goes back more than 50 years, her understanding of intersectionality comes from the original publishing of the Combahee River Collective Statement, and she has been a socialist feminist and supporter of land back and indigenous peoples’ sovereignty since she was a teenager in the 1970’s.

Peterson has stated: The opinions expressed here are my own, I am not speaking for anyone else.

References and Notes

  1. ORCID - Karrie Peterson. (Archived)

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