The free software community needs more people who set a good example.

The free software movement was arguably founded by one Richard Stallman in the early 1980s. He has certainly been its most strict and tireless proponent. He founded the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation and was its president for decades.

He has long been known to be a difficult person, in that he doesn’t compromise, and rarely changes his mind about anything. In some ways that has probably been a good thing: without a strong captain, the software freedom movement might not have grown large enough to survive on its own without Stallman. Or maybe it would have: regardless, his early persuasion (nay, insistence) about the importance of software freedom convinced enough people that a community was spawn. He also steered the course of the formative discussions about software freedom. These are important achievements that Stallman is rightly recognized for.

In 2019, it became painfully clear to a large number of people that Stallman is not just difficult, but actively discriminates against many people, and treats them badly, to an extent that he is harmful and dangerous. He was forced to resign from leadership in the Free Software Foundation.

In truth, to many in the free software community this was not news, although the extent of it was not always to known to all of us. Even so, it should not have taken a public scandal for a change to happen. I knew some of it, and I am ashamed that I didn’t speak for a change. I was afraid of rocking the free software boat. I was wrong.

I now realize that the free software movement is too strongly led by a very small number of people. To a large extent, we have one public face, one public voice, and this is not good, regardless of who that is and what kind of a person they are.

There is little in terms of raw power to go around. We persuade with our arguments for freedom, and provide some working software. The GNU project initiated some of the fundamental components of a modern Linux-based operating system, such as the C compiler and library, linker, build systems, shell, and core command line tools. The bulk of the actual development of some of those are now mostly done by large corporations who pay developers to work on them.

To a large extent, the discourse around software freedom and the projects working on free software is dominated by Stallman and the FSF. This is important, even if it’s not running code: it’s ideas that influence how people think, which then influences how they act. That’s at least as important as building actual software.

Their behavior in general sets an example that many people follow. It’s not always a good one. As a specific example, Stallman has asked women to go on dates with him, even when they first meet, in ways that make them uncomfortable. Others take this as a cue to also approach women for sex. This perpetuates and strengthens the idea that women exist primarily for men’s pleasure and benefit, which is one of the reasons why women are treated badly in the free software world, so that they tend to not join or not stay.

One can’t credit Stallman as the only source of that idea, of course. It’s obviously also not a phenomenon unique in the free software world, but pervades most of the world. However, none of that is an excuse for Stallman or anyone else to maintain or worsen this deplorable state of things.

There are many other complaints about Stallman’s behavior, some much worse. I’m not going to list or discuss them all. I’m not going to get dragged into a detailed debate about specifics. The Internet discussion fora are already awash with that discussion. I don’t think it matters for my main point. While Stallman is in my opinion not fit to lead the free software movement, the long-term problem is that we have so few people who could replace him.

While Stallman resigned from FSF leadership in 2019, he re-joined the FSF board this week, about a year and half later. This was a surprise to many. It was not justified in any way. This has upset me, and many others, and led to an open letter “calling for Richard M. Stallman to be removed from all leadership positions, including the GNU Project” and “the removal of the entire Board of the Free Software Foundation”. I have signed that open letter. I support if fully, even if I wasn’t part of writing it. (See the letter at https://rms-open-letter.github.io/.)

In reaction to the open letter, many people are outraged that someone who has done so much for software freedom shouldn’t be allowed to continue to be a leader anymore. I don’t agree with those people. I frankly think they’re entirely wrong about this.

The fact that so many of them express their outrage with insults and abuse doesn’t sway me to their point of view, rather the opposite. It strengthens my conviction that we as the free software community have a problem with our leadership. We have too much of a personality cult around Stallman.

Whether Stallman is as bad as the open letter claims, we unarguably have a single point of failure by only having one main thought leader in, and a spokesperson for our movement. Even if Stallman were the best person in the world, with no character flaw and universally liked as a person, as an individual he would be irreplaceable. That would make the community vulnerable if something happened to him.

One of the failures of Stallman’s leadership of the free software community is that it’s very clearly not an inclusive community from which new leadership grows. In many ways it is a discriminatory community.

Diverse communities tend to be stronger, survive better, and last longer. Healthy communities tend to grow their own leaders. The free software community has not done that. We need to make that happen.

Discriminating against people is morally and ethically bad. It’s wrong. There are many vocal people in and surrounding the free software community that will debate that. I’m not going to. For those people, if they are indeed for software freedom, I say that it’s in the pragmatic interest of even the staunchest social justice opponent to not arbitrarily make the community smaller and weaker by excluding people. There is such a lot of work to be done that we need as many people as we can. Also, being intolerant is wrong, unless you’re intolerant of intolerance, but I’m not going to sway anyone’s mind about that, so I point out the pragmatic reason.

Lest I paint a picture that is too gloomy, let me point out that there are many other leaders in the free software world than Stallman. However, nobody else seems to have the same stature as Stallman. I’m arguing that nobody should.

We don’t need leaders with power, or with authority. We need thought leaders, who can persuade and convince people to do right things, and people who set good examples. We need many of them.

(Comments on this blog are disabled, but you can respond on the fediverse in respond to my announcement of this blog post.)