Richard Stallman is neither a leader nor a Messiah

Are Richard Stallman’s words infallible for the Free Software movement?

An image of Richard Matthew Stallman taken fro...
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It seem to be quite a common phenomenon that detractors of Free software will attemp to bring up Richard Stallman and specifically something he might have said at one time or another, most usually quoted out of context and with the most uncharitable intepretation possible. This is then used as some kind of proof for the sinister motive of Free Software. Here’s one such example:

Stallman has repeatedly said that he thinks that programmers are overpaid and that skilled laborers should do their jobs for free or for a pittance (and therefore unskilled management is the only way to justify large salaries from technology), and it isn’t too hard to draw the inference that the GNU license, the philosophy of which makes it much harder for coders to get paid for their work, is his way of acting on his opinions.

Notice how we do not get to see exactly what Stallman said or in what context. Rather, we get the quoter’s personal interpretation which basically asserts a specific set of outcomes which looks to be the worst possible. It furthermore¬† inserts a sinister motive behind the GPL which is really requires a huge stretch of the imagination.

This is pure rhetoric people, and it’s the kind that displays intellectual dishonesty which rivals the Barefoot Bum. I can’t avoid getting annoyed when such a stunning amount of bullshit is said with a straight face because I can immediately, subconsciously even, see the logical fallacies and attempts at misdirection.

However it is important to counter the basic point of anti-Free Software tirade.

Stallman’s words are not infallible

Even if we accept the absurd intepretation such as the above as being true, even if we accept that Richard Stallman has some sinister motive behind the conception of the GNU Public License, it would still not make it the driving idea behind Free Software. The reason for this is simple: Richard Stallman is not a Messiah. Yes, he is a very influential figure in the free software movement. Yes, he is the one who can be said to have started it all. Yes, he does really follow what he preaches. But that’s it!

The arguments that Stallman makes, stand on their own accord and not because Stallman said them. However the rhetoric above tries to imply exactly that: That because he said it, it must be a part of the free software movement. But we are not a pack of sheep. We do not blindly follow what Stallman or RMS or Torvalds says (atlthough you will certainly find some individuals who are like that, same as with any public figure). We look at the arguments each of them presents, judge them and then espouse or reject them.

Thus even if Stallman’s secret plan was indeed to “eliminate independent coding as a profession”, the people would modify and implement his core idea in a way that it wouldn’t achieve this result. This is because such a result would be against the best interests of the coders that embrace it. Of course such a sinister plot is absurd on its face and the free software ideology is embraced on its merits as one promoting greater freedom for users and developers.

It is then that people with an axe to grind against FOSS imply that we’re simply being naive and being led like lamb to the slaughter by promises of freedom. There is not argument to back this up however, only shaky correlation and misunderstood economics. But this serves only as a handy personal delusion for those who make these arguments as they are incapable of explaining why people would embrace an idea that they consider obviously evil. It can’t be that they’re missing something, it must be that everyone espousing it is either stupid or evil.

The ironic part is how the people making such accusation have a double standard when public figures from the SW development paradigm they support say obviously wrong stuff such as wishing to take all the fun out of making video games. But it’s ok to quote mine and misinterpret Free Software figures because, after all, you have a point to prove.

To summarize, Stallman says a lot of things, some of the objectionable. I disagree with a lot of what he says, much like I disagree with a lot of what Torvalds or Raymond say. I may disagree with less things that Stallman says than any of the previous two figures, but this very far from deciding that the uncharitable interpretation of a paraphrased quote mine is representative of the whole free software movement and its purpose.

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11 thoughts on “Richard Stallman is neither a leader nor a Messiah”

  1. The promised more:

    You aren't even supposed to use proprietary software if there IS no open-source alternative:
    "He had little sympathy for one of the audience members, who said that he needed some proprietary (video editing) software in order to do his job, since free software in that field is still lacking, thus taking too much time to get anything done with it. RMS's response? “Get another job! … f*ck the speed issue, get paid less and be ethical.”"
    — Richard Stallman in Aukland,

    You also shouldn't use proprietary software at work even if you're using it to support Stallman's movement:
    ""That's where the cash for things like my FSF-E Fellowship, EFF membership, Creative Commons membership, etc., come from, see?"
    These are worthy causes, but I would not encourage anyone to use non-free software even to get money to give to a worthy cause."

    On programmer salaries:
    "Probably programming will not be as lucrative on the new basis as it is now. But that is not an argument against the change. It is not considered an injustice that sales clerks make the salaries that they now do. If programmers made the same, that would not be an injustice either."
    — The GNU Manifesto

    High salaries for programmers should be banned outright to protect low- or non-paying jobs (and yes, he is advocating this — go look):
    "What the facts show is that people will program for reasons other than riches; but if given a chance to make a lot of money as well, they will come to expect and demand it. Low-paying organizations do poorly in competition with high-paying ones, but they do not have to do badly if the high-paying ones are banned."
    — The GNU Manifesto

    1. I can find damning quotes from people like Bill Gates, Steve Balmer and the like. It does not mean anything. See what RMS says, pick what you think is right and argue why the rest isn't

    2. Why do you reply to a post that says "I don't agree with RMS all the time" with disagreeable RMS quotes?

    3. Presumably it isn't Stallman's logic that you disagree with, but only his application of it. I doubt you'd object if he said: "I have no sympathy for anyone who needs to kill people in order to do his job. Killing is unethical! Let assassins find alternative employment!"

      So your objection is that you don't think the ethics of software is as serious as the ethics of killing. Well, neither does anyone in the Free Software movement, presumably — they just take it more seriously than you do; but that should have been immediately evident from the outset, so I'm not sure what all the hand-wringing is about. If I had to guess, I'd say that it's simple envy: those with stiffer spines on these matters serve as a mirror to those of lesser fortitude, and it's never pleasant to have your weaknesses exposed. You'll find similar behavior in any sphere of human interaction: those with sketchy moral compasses will mock, deride, and ridicule those on firmer moral ground, in order to drag the latter down to the lowest common denominator. The Free Software movement is fortunate to have a stalwart like RMS to keep them on an even keel.

      1. Presumably it isn't Stallman's logic that you disagree with, but only his application of it.

        In Ethics, application is more important than the theory. Most people frown on "Do as I say not as I do" types. But in this case it's not even that. He disagrees with the ethics themselves since he sees them as directly responsible for the loss of jobs and does not see the proprietary production as bad. You need to recognise this before you engage him on this issue.

        1. I didn't put forth a theory. I showed how the logic Ozynonymous objected to, as used by Stallman, would not be objectionable when applied elsewhere. So it isn't Stallman's logic that Ozynonymous objects to, but his application of that sound logic to software. I then speculated that this was because Ozynonymous doesn't value software freedom as highly as Stallman does, or at least not as Stallman defines it. It appears evident enough that this is the case: within the various camps in this field, the Stallman camp (if you will) is probably the most adamant on this issue. Those who object to his position generally do so because they feel that he takes it too far, is too stringent and demanding (and Ozynonymous specifically addresses this as objectionable).

          So you see, I do recognize what you say I do not, as I endeavored to make clear in my initial comment: Ozynonymous does not take the ethics of software freedom as seriously as RMS; and therein lies the real beef that such folks have with him and the movement: it's not the logic, but the application.

          I hope I've made that as clear as possible now.

          1. Fair enough. I stand corrected.

            However I would say that the problem does not lie in the application but rather in the ethics themselves. As you said yourself, people don't object to the application of this moral rule when they accept it as ethical. They object to the application of a rule they do not accept as ethical.

            The problem people have is not that they do not take software freedom seriously. That implies that they do consider it in the first place but don't give it enough weight. The problem is that people don't consider software freedom to be a normative proposition in the first place and thus are annoyed when they are condemned for not following a moral rule they do not accept.

      2. I'd say that it's simple envy: those with stiffer spines on these matters serve as a mirror to those of lesser fortitude

        This is completely the wrong attitude to have when trying to convince someone that they are wrong. Trying to claim the higher ground so that you can claim that you're holier than thou is nor a working strategy and is far more likely to have the opposite result. When people disagree with ethical proposition they usually do so because they don't accept them, not because they accept them and are just envious of their paragons. That is absurd!

        However this kind of argumentation is more annoyingly common than you think. It is the reason why vegans and many vocal religious strains have such a bad rep since they argue in a similar way, by claiming the moral high ground, annoying everyone with it and then claiming that everyone is simply envious.

        If you want to argue that the Free Software is the ethical choice, please continue doing so, but also please avoid the moralizing in the process as it only makes you look like an out-of-touch zealot and it harms the expansion of the free software movement as a whole.

        1. I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything (I'm not a Free Software activist — which is why I referred to them in the third person — though I do admire Stallman) — I'm simply interpreting what I observe: When people perceive that others have taken a stronger moral stand than they themselves are prepared to take, they become defensive. In a roundabout way, I said the same thing you did — the difference being that you're worried about losing such people, whereas I am not willing to concede the moral high ground (which, as a Windows user, I don't happen to hold in this case) — or, if you prefer: I am not willing to compromise my convictions — simply because they make others feel bad about themselves. If everyone did that, then we'd truly sink to the absolute lowest common denominator. Better, I think, to make a good example by taking a moral stand on issues that are important to us. Of course, there's no need to be arrogant about it — and again, I'm not advocating any such thing; I'm not saying one should go around flaunting one's moral superiority as a strategy for winning friends and influencing people — I'm only observing how people tend to react in these situations. Since you don't disagree that this is how people sometimes react, I don't see why you would object to my simple observation of that apparent fact; at any rate it appears that you've misunderstood me and are objecting to what you thought I was here to do. I hope I've cleared that up now.

          1. Indeed, I misundertood you as if you were a Free Software zealot.

            There's some truth in what you say about people being hostile because they see a mirror of themselves but there's also the other side of those annoying people by asserting their own ethics on those who do not espouse them in the first place. People annoyed or turned hostile by this behaviour are not doing it because they are envious but because they do not enjoy the moralizing.

            As for me, it's not that I'm worried about losing people, it's that my priorities lie elsewhere and in moral ambiguities (such as the question of whether the use of proprietary software is unethical) I am willing to let people decide for themselves while I simply make my best arguments and give the example as much as I can. As far as I know, Stallman does something similar which is why I don't think he's being fairly attacked. However there are elements within the Free Software Movement, much like there are in the Vegan or Religious movement which are willing to assault everyone's immorality and are thus creating much more problems than they solve.

  2. You can't really (well, specifically, I would not) say there's just one free software movement. You can divide it into a "free software" (BSD) movement and an "anti-encumbered-software movement" (GNU). I'm not a big fan of the GNU culture, there's just too much hero worship, too much religiousity, too much hatred of declared "enemies" by people who have too little at stake in the question to justify the degree of their hatred. Projects with singular leaders or figureheads tend to attract people that want to follow leaders and be inspired by figureheads and told what to do (obviously that's not everyone, but the tendecy is to attract such people). Projects like Linux and OpenBSD and GNU with a singular leader (Torvalds, de Raadt, and Stallman respectively) attract those people, whereas projects like FreeBSD or NetBSD which have no single leader or figurehead, and to a lesser degree the products of software companies, don't attract the same kinds of people, which can make the communities more pleasant. In some cases, such as Windows fans, much of the issue can be the frustration with those seen as representing "Free Software" being idiots who think Windows doesn't have simple utilities like at and cron because their (which I call) "religion" inclines them against understanding it. The inclination against "Free Software" by Windows users (who usually are using Firefox and VLC anyways and only object to people as being stupid) leads to them looking for any excuse to make fun of and antagonize the same people that make fun of and antagonize them, which I really can't say is unfair.

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