The FSF doubles down on restoring RMS after his non-apology apology

Weeks after being readmitted to the Free Software Foundation board, Stallman speaks and the board stands behind him.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) re-admitting its founder Richard M. Stallman (RMS) to its board in late March caught everyone, including FSF members and staff, by surprise. Many -- both outside and inside the FSF -- objected to RMS's return. Now, weeks later, RMS offers a defensive non-apology apology for the words and actions that led to his resignation from the FSF.

In his statement, RMS, who has otherwise remained silent, opened by writing: "Ever since my teenage years, I felt as if there were a filmy curtain separating me from other people my age. I understood the words of their conversations, but I could not grasp why they said what they did. Much later I realized that I didn't understand the subtle cues that other people were responding to." 

RMS goes on to state, "Sometimes I lost my temper because I didn't have the social skills to avoid it. Some people could cope with this; others were hurt. I apologize to each of them." He continued, "Some have described me as being 'tone-deaf,' and that is fair." 

Then, after admitting he has "difficulty in understanding social cues," years after the fact, he said: "It was right for me to talk about the injustice to Minsky, but it was tone-deaf that I didn't acknowledge as context the injustice that [serial rapist] Epstein did to women or the pain that caused."

RMS did not, however, address the many other issues which caused people to regret his return to a position of leadership. As one Ycombinator poster summarized it:

The Minsky defense was not the primary, most important reason RMS can't serve as an effective, inclusive leader for free software, it was just the one that got the most attention. This does nothing to address the numerous complaints of harassment towards MIT students, the _other_ times he spoke out in implicit support of pedophilia, the public gaffes that are unacceptable as a public representative (e.g. the foot skin eating thing), and the fact that the FSF under Stallman kinda lost to open source anyway and hasn't really done anything besides virtue signal to others about how pure and ethical they are.

A minute after the RMS post appeared, what remains of the FSF board finally spoke on why they'd brought him back to the board. The unsigned document states: "The voting members of the Free Software Foundation, which include the board of directors, voted to appoint Richard Stallman to a board seat after several months of thorough discussion and thoughtful deliberation."

That was news to everyone at the LibrePlanet conference -- where RMS announced his return and to the FSF staff. The board admitted:

We take full responsibility for how badly we handled the news of his election to a board seat. We had planned a flow of information that was not executed in a timely manner or delivered in the proper sequence.

FSF staff should have been informed and consulted first. The announcement by RMS at LibrePlanet was a complete surprise to staff, all those who worked so hard to organize a great event, to LibrePlanet speakers, and to the exhibitors. We had hoped for a more inclusive and thoughtful process and we apologize that this did not occur.

This -- in no way, shape, or form -- sounds like the results of a decision that was made after several months of thorough discussion and thoughtful deliberation. And, why did the board bring RMS back in from the cold? In a boot-licking display, the group stated: 

We decided to bring RMS back because we missed his wisdom. His historical, legal, and technical acumen on free software is unrivaled. He has a deep sensitivity to the ways that technologies can contribute to both the enhancement and the diminution of basic human rights. His global network of connections is invaluable. He remains the most articulate philosopher and an unquestionably dedicated advocate of freedom in computing.

The many free software and open-source groups and individuals who have called for RMS's removal disagree.

Bradley M. Kuhn, a former, long-term member of the FSF board and current Policy Fellow and Hacker-in-Residence of the Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC), in an e-mail, added:

The real victims in this entire situation have been generally ignored.  We all must remember that the victims are Ms. Giuffre and other women whom Epstein sex-trafficked.  Much work and research has been done about how to interact with victims of sex trafficking in a way that is trauma-informed, and how to treat victims of such horrible acts with respect.  These respective statements from the FSF and RMS fail to do that; there is no apology from RMS nor FSF to Ms. Guiffre, who is the person who was harmed most by RMS' statements.  The statement mentions punishment for bad actors but makes no effort to assist, apologize and help the people who were primarily harmed by RMS's statements.

The FSF states that RMS "has sincere regrets, especially at how anger toward him personally has negatively impacted the reputation and mission of FSF." Regretting that people are angry at him and that's harmed the FSF is not a sincere apology. It's an "I'm sorry you're angry at me," non-apology apology.  

The board goes on: "While his personal style remains troubling for some, a majority of the board feel his behavior has moderated and believe that his thinking strengthens the work of the FSF in pursuit of its mission." 

The FSF has long been a moribund organization with little relevance to the modern technology world. By doubling down on restoring RMS to a leadership position, instead of attracting "a new generation of activists for software freedom and to grow the movement," the FSF is more mired than ever in its leader's troublesome past. 

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