April 21, 2021

Comment on the open letter to "remove RMS", based on the GNU Kind Communications Guidelines


About me

This text is not supposed to be about me, but let me start with a few words about my own background. I have been programming one way or another for most of my life. The work on my PhD thesis involved a lot of programming related to the Ergo quantum chemistry program, and later I worked on scientific computing research involving the Chunks and Tasks programming model. Over the years I have become more and more fascinated by the concept of free/libre software and I would really enjoy contributing more to such projects. I support organizations like the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and Software Freedom Conservancy. Recently I made some small contributions to Phosh and the Linux kernel , something I was very proud of.


Why I am writing this

Recently, an open letter was published with the title "An open letter to remove Richard M. Stallman from all leadership positions". Many people have signed the letter; at the time of writing, 61 organizations have signed, and there are 3009 individual signatures.

The open letter has triggered a debate within the free/libre software world, a debate that I find both interesting and important. However, as I read the letter and various responses to it, I imagine that many voices on both sides are coming from a place of anger and outrage. I think more thoughtful communication would be helpful in this situation.

Whatever one might think of RMS or the GNU project, I found the GNU Kind Communications Guidelines to be quite good, and so I was wondering what would be different if the debate were following those rules. Since the open letter sparked the debate and was signed by so many people, I find it interesting to look at the letter itself from the perspective of those guidelines.

Part 1: avoiding personal attacks

Quote from the GNU Kind Communications Guidelines:

"Please do not take a harsh tone towards other participants, and especially don't make personal attacks against them. Go out of your way to show that you are criticizing a statement, not a person."

I think under normal circumstances we all see the wisdom in the above, in general. However, there are parts of the open letter that could be interpreted as personal attacks, depending on the mindset of the reader. One such part of the letter is the following sentence: "He has shown himself to be misogynist, ableist, and transphobic, among other serious accusations of impropriety."

There is a risk that the phrasing in that part of the open letter can be interpreted as assigning those labels (misogynist, ableist, transphobic) to the person, as part of his identity, rather than criticizing specific statements or actions.

The advice in the communications guidelines to "go out of your way to show that you are criticizing a statement, not a person", does not seem to have been followed here. Assuming that the statements in the open letter are based on statements and actions, it should be possible to reformulate that part of the letter to make it more clear that the letter is criticizing certain things RMS has said and done, and reduce the personal focus.

Part 2: avoiding exaggerations

Another relevant part of the GNU Kind Communications Guidelines reads as follows:

"Please respond to what people actually said, not to exaggerations of their views. Your criticism will not be constructive if it is aimed at a target other than their real views."

Again, this is hardly something that would normally be under dispute, most people would agree that it is best to avoid exaggerations when formulating criticism. Looking at the open letter, there seems to be room for improvement in this regard.

One specific part of the open letter that risks being seen as an exaggeration is the phrase "his hurtful and dangerous ideology". Even if you (who signed the letter) are convinced that RMS has a hurtful and dangerous ideology, it may be worth considering that readers of the letter may think this is an exaggeration.

The phrasing "misogynist, ableist, and transphobic" quoted earlier is another example of something that may appear as as an exaggeration to readers of the letter.

Turning to the appendix of the open letter, linked to with the sentence "We have detailed several public incidents of RMS’s behavior", that contains references that also risk being seen as unfair exaggerations or misinterpretations. To see a specific example of this, consider the reference number 2 in the appendix of the open letter, which points to a vice.com article. Because the headline of that vice.com article mischaracterizes the actual statements, I worry that this citation will increase the defensiveness of readers who are skeptical of the letter's concerns. To read details about these issues, see for example: Cancel We The Web? and On Stallman.

As the quote from the communications guidelines above says, criticism will not be constructive if it is aimed at a target other than the real views of the people criticized. It would have been better to avoid exaggerations, and to avoid referencing something that is partly false, like the reference number 2 mentioned above. More impeccable citations would go a long ways toward increasing the credibility of the letter.

Moving forward

Turning again to the GNU Kind Communications Guidelines, I think the following part can help us move forward in the current difficult situation:

"If other participants complain about the way you express your ideas, please make an effort to cater to them. You can find ways to express the same points while making others more comfortable. You are more likely to persuade others if you don't arouse ire about secondary things."

This applies here: in the recent debate some people have complained about the way you express your ideas in the open letter, and perhaps they have a point. As discussed above, there are some things about the open letter that could have been better. Regardless of one's position on any controversy, I believe that more careful constructive presentation of arguments will increase the chance of persuading readers.


Anyone who would like to ask questions or otherwise discuss this with me is welcome to contact me by e-mail: mail@eliasrudberg.se. I am particularly interested in hearing from those who signed the open letter -- the critique above is directed at the letter you signed, and I would very much like to hear how you respond to it. Please do not hesitate to write to me.


Thanks to Aaron Wolf for his review and editorial suggestions.