All hail the windmill tilters

Been growing ever more tired of the posts about RMS and his talk at GCDS. I didn’t agree with his conclusions on the technical/legal subjects covered and the whole emacs/st.igutius thing is becoming a bore, but I suspect more than a little that the current outpouring over his alleged sexism is more about people finally finding a good meme to use to latch out against someone they don’t like and disagree strongly with, rather than a sudden realization that the St. Ignutius routine he has been doing for the last 15 years is overtly sexist. One could certainly argue that there was a few passages in there that should be altered, but I am equally sure that if it had been someone else, most people ranting currently would have been willing to write it off on the goodwill account.

On that topic I think the whole issue of sexism in the community is somewhat of a joke. It basically appeared on the stage after the following steps was taken.
Step 1: The lack of female participation was identified as a problem.
Step 2: People wanted to address the problem
Step 3: The following algorithm was used to determine the source of the problem:

If "well reasoned explanation can be found" is true:
    address_problem()
else:
    print "sexism"

Since then well meaning people of the community has followed in the footsteps of another well meaning fool and been tilting at the windmills.

So please continue fighting against the evils you see in the world, but be aware that crucifying RMS is probably not the solution.

And before someone starts shouting at me for not realizing that sexism do exist in the open source world, please save yourself the energy. I am sure it exist, along with racism, anti-semitism, bigotry, general intolerance, gay and lesbian hating, supremacism, communism or whatever evil you want to come up with. I just don’t buy into using them as the default fallback whenever the reason for something needs to be explained.

43 thoughts on “All hail the windmill tilters”

  1. I think you’re confusing two similar but separate arguments. The first is “The reason that women don’t make up 50% of the free software population is sexism”. That’s a difficult argument to back up, and making it involves trying to split out every single factor that results in gender disparities and reducing them to sexism. For the record, I don’t think this argument is true or that making it is terribly useful.

    The second is “The number of women involved in free software is reduced by sexism”. This is much easier to support – the Flosspols study shows marked differences in the perceptions of male and female participants. Is RMS using his terminology because he genuinely believes women need to have their emacs virginity taken away by powerful men? I doubt it. But is that the perception that he creates? Yes. Looking at the responses in various places online, it’s not hard to find statements like “This is why I got out of free software”.

    Stopping RMS from saying this sort of thing (either by persuading him or simply not giving him a platform to do so) won’t magically fix the gender ratios. But it is a necessary step in doing so.

    1. @Matthew Garrett: With the discussion about female participation in Open Source having become almost solely about sexism in open source we are much closer to the first than the second. And more importantly just because the second is valid doesn’t mean it deserves being held up as the major issue for women in open source. Could very well be that for every 100 women not getting involved in open source the statistics is 1% due to sexism and 99% due to having run into a developer/maintainer who is narcissistic, condescending and dismissive (regardless of gender). Problem is we have no statistics which is not marred with getting the result they where looking to get. And another side effect is that with the flag being held high about sexism in open source, when women today do run into a developer like the type I described they might now start to think ‘oh, so this is the sexism in open source I been hearing so much about’ and thus we are dealing with a self enhancing effect.

  2. I agree with this. I had prepared a blog item that addressed the real issues with Dr. Stallman but when I let other people proof-read it they told me posting the criticism wouldn’t be worth the death threats and flaming that I would receive in return from that from fundamentalist Dr. Stallman fans.

    Given that death threats have been sent to Mono developers frequently by said fundamentalist fans of Dr. Stallman, we instead decided to launch the “I am not afraid of people writing code” meme.

    ps. Yes, death threats are exactly and precisely the level that these fundamentalist people have reached. And yes, the Mono guys are exactly and precisely the most pragmatic guys (about such things) in the community. But you can’t ignore certain things anymore. They are getting increasingly fanatic, increasingly crazy and Dr. Stallman is increasingly positioning himself in support of those idiots.

    That’s the real issue, I believe.

  3. As I stated on my own blog, I wasn’t at GCDS so I can’t comment on RMS’s talk and I’m not interested in crucifying him anymore than I myself appreciate being crucified for hacking on Mono.

    That said, to me the important thing is that the GNOME community (and ideally the greater FLOSS community) push to make everyone feel respected and welcome (if that is even a problem in GNOME today, I do not know). I think this is important for a healthy community and so I also stand with the “STOP sexism” meme – which I take as a pledge to better myself (I know I am not perfect) as well as to bring awareness of not only sexism, but other means of disrespect as well.

  4. I have one problem with the whole FLOSSPOLS report: It’s investigating if a small sub-group feels underrepresented or unwelcome. The first thing is obvious. And the second thing is pretty obvious to me, too: If you’re the only X in a group of Y (French in a group of German, Metal fan in a group of Hippies, …) you automatically feel unwelcome, because you are different. Even when you are not.
    AFAIK the report does only ask women and does not try to use more objective measures to see if that’s just their perception or the reality.

    What this report also fails to explain are other communities that were male-dominated at first but easily attracted large parts of females, such as football fandom, World of Warcraft and probably pretty much any musical genre of the last century (Techno, Punk, Metal, you name it).

    Then the report does not analyze the perception of women in Open Source, but the perception of women that self-selected to be part of Open Source. There is a high chance that these women are special, just because they decide to participate in a male-dominated world.

    Last but not least I’d like someone to tell me that they seriously think that people in Open Source are more sexist than the world at large. And please include MTV in your considerations.

    Benjamin,
    who only gets called a sexist when he’s part of the Open Source community.

  5. Amen!

    I don’t understand all these ‘sexism’ crap everyone’s shouting lately.

    Stop treating women as babies.

  6. It’s sexism.

    However, the bulk of the problem is sexism external to the open source world. It’s sexism in the world at large that suggests we should be finding a family, having babies, doing more “social” work. It’s not overt sexism — open source culture is funny, fun, and relatively easy to get into. Also, it’s become very, very self-conscious lately.

    The feeling of being protected inside of open source culture pisses me off more than anything, since I’m happy to stand up for myself if I’m actually being wronged. I also might just laugh at some of the jokes people try to protect me from.

    As much as affirmative action is annoying, it might be neccesary — but I think we have to look to a broader place than just our own communities. Women in maths, women in CS in general are a bit rare. Encourage our sisters, our daughters to enjoy thinking about fun problems and solving them as worthy work. Keep up the Girl Genius comics and start respecting our work first and our femaleness second. Work on finding any notion that women are less good, less interested, less anything than men, and eradicate it, because the source of those things is social and not natural.

  7. Christian Schaller is right on spot here.

    Just a sidenote;
    pvanhoof, you might wanna reread the blog entry you just commented on.

    What you wrote in your comment is pretty much opposite to what you “agreed” on in the beginning.
    Sure you probably hate Stallman for what he thinks about Mono, but putting him in the same camp as the idiots making death threats just makes you look stupid. I don’t know Stallman but I am pretty sure he does not support anyone threating to kill a coder.

  8. Well said.

    RMS’s remarks may have been inappropriate and he seems to become somewhat of a parody of himself. But this whole controversy seems out of proportion of what actually happened.

    [ @pvanhoof: one doesn't have to be a 'fundamentalist' or an RMS-fan to have concerns over mono, esp. before that Microsoft CP. Suggesting that RMS somehow supports the sending of death threats is simply ridiculous. ]

  9. THANK YOU SO MUCH for being to the point about this whole RMS/Sexism issue. It was about time :)

  10. @djcb, @Vertigo: can you guys elaborate (in quite exact quotes from the comment I wrote, if you will) where or how precisely I suggested that RMS supports the sending of death threats? I wrote that RMS positions himself increasingly in support of those idiots. Not that he positions himself in support of the death threats.

    It’s not very hard to read a language. Neither is it very hard to on-purpose misinterpret what somebody else writes. The latter makes you intellectually dishonest, though.

  11. @pvanhoof

    i doubt i would be able to convince you that 2+2=4 if you thought otherwise, but let me try anyway…

    “Yes, death threats are exactly and precisely the level that these fundamentalist people have reached. [...] They are getting increasingly fanatic, increasingly crazy and Dr. Stallman is increasingly positioning himself in support of those idiots.”

    If you wanted to say that Stallman supports ‘those idiots’ but not their death threats, that is exactly what you should have mentioned. But by putting it the way you did, you very much suggest that he does.

    Anyway, hopefully we can then conclude that your writing was rather ambiguous, but that, in fact, you do not really suggest that RMS supports death threats, and get on with our lives. If you want to discuss this further, let’s choose a different forum.

  12. Finally someone on planet gnome that thinks clearly.

    The whole “boohoohoo, he doesn’t like the language I love, let’s accuse him of being a sexist bastard” thing was getting really annoying.

    It’s ironic how RS’ routine of mocking religions is almost getting him crucified by (anti-sexism) fanatics.

  13. And I was starting to think that there were only naive and infant people on Open Source World. Thanks for proving me wrong.

    Nice post.

  14. Christian, I respect you, but not for this position. If Stallman’s been doing this for the past fifteen years–GCDS was the first time I ever heard the “EMACS virgins” line–then it’s a damned shame that no one spoke up about it before I did.

    As I said on Patryk’s blog, were the folks who weren’t African-Americans who joined and vocally supported the Civil Rights movement in the 60s wrong to do so?

    When someone repeatedly singles out a particular group, whether women, or Asians, or gays, or cripples, as the butt of “jokes” in a keynote at a technical conference, that’s just plain wrong. The fact that no one’s said it’s wrong before hardly makes it better.

    As I asked someone who tried to make this point at GCDS, “How many times to I have to punch someone in the nose before it becomes a good thing?”

  15. Lefty, it’s OK to point out perceived sexism, of course, but the amount of hate and agression that people pour into this discussion is disturbing.

    It is telling that little to no facts are being discussed, and that people seem to be hell bent to argue past each other. To me, this like an earthquake caused by explosive release of long existing tensions between slowly moving minds.

    Another cycle of fighting for software freedom might need to start: The GPLv3 could be the battle cry, and I know which side I am on.

    But, it makes me sad to see that people that I otherwise consider to be quite smart turn into mindless, banner waving trolls.

    The deeper issue, whether depending on Mono is good or bad for the future of Free Software and Open Source, is not a simple one.
    Trying to rally up some chanting crowd does not do it justice.

    Personally, I think we should get more aggressive about infringing software patents and hope that humanity at large will do the right thing. I have great faith that it will, if we help it along.

    With peace and with love.

  16. “”When someone repeatedly singles out a particular group, whether women, or Asians, or gays, or cripples, as the butt of “jokes” in a keynote at a technical conference, that’s just plain wrong. The fact that no one’s said it’s wrong before hardly makes it better.””

    How about prosecuting a single man for the crime of making a single off-colored joke?

    Sersiously. People need to REALLY get over themselves with this one. And when I say ‘REALLY’ I mean your all being fucking weak and baby-ish about this. This is not college, this is not the university. This is not a world were everybody should by into the lies about tolerance and positive benefits of political correctness.

    Here. I am GOING TO BE REALLY FUCKING KIND to you right now. I am going to try to explain something very carefully and if your wise you will take what I am saying with very careful consideration.

    This is what I have learned when dealing with people over the 30+ years of my life. Dealing with bigots, sexists, black people, white people, mexicans, muslims, skinheads, street kids, asians, air port security personal, gay, straight, new age, fundamentalists, parents, children, bosses, employees, asshotes, etc etc.

    Let me explain something about ‘tolerance’. Here is something that they should teach in schools. It’s about logic, human understanding, tolerance, forgiveness, and common sense.

    First lesson:

    A) Brining up the civil rights movement in a discussion about a single individual doing the best he can to be the best speaker he can in front of a audience is a insult to the people who belonged, worked, and sacrificed their well being, freedoms, and their lives for the civil rights movement.

    Ok? Get that. It’s a _insult_. Your diminishing the relevance and importance of that fundamental achievement in the evolution of western civilization by equating it with people whining on blogs.

    B) Keep perspective. Attacking a single individual that makes off colored jokes in a introductory speech is a _personal_attack_. You people are attacking a _individual_. A single person, a flawed person (as flawed as you and me). This is not a governmental movement, or a group of people, or people that rape children or oppress a women, etc etc etc. RMS is just one guy.

    Using a excuse like “we are forwarding the movement for sexual equivalence” (which you absolutely implied here) as a justification for a personal attack is just place wrong and flawed on many many levels.

    If your going to attack and insult a person don’t be a pussy about it. Go right out and say how much you think he sucks and he is a asshole. Be as petty and small minded as you can possibly be and let people know exactly what is going on and exactly were you stand.

    Trying to equate a personal attack as a small time human rights achievement is completely self-deluded and makes anything you say look like words from a of petty fool.

    C) Tolerance is about getting along with people that you disagree with. Getting along with distasteful behavior, ugly personalities, and things that you consider negative.

    It’s not about agreeing with people. It’s not about making sure that everybody is equal. It’s about letting stuff slide that pisses you off and letting people get away with doing things that you disagree with. If your only tolerant about people that you agree with then your not tolerant.

    D) Adults should be able to handle off-colored jokes.

    Off-colored jokes are purposely rascist, sexist, bigoted, insulting, unreasonable, etc etc. They are meant to be mildly offensive.

    It’s a _tool_. It’s how you get people’s attention, make them nervous, break the ice, get them a little ‘heated’ so that they are primed for the next, much more important, section of the discussion which is usually going to be somewhat obscure, boring, and/or controversial.

    It’s a risky thing. As adults you should be able to handle things of this nature. Public speech is very difficult and it’s very difficult to get correct and mature people understand this and are tolerant of mistakes and oversights.

    And if you feel something is not appropriate for a venue then either you get the person to agree to not do that next time and if that fails simply not invite them to a speech again. It’s very simple, ethical, right, and this is how grown-ups handle situations.

    E) Females can stand up for themselves.

    “”””
    As I asked someone who tried to make this point at GCDS, “How many times to I have to punch someone in the nose before it becomes a good thing?”
    “”””

    Probably until they realize that they are the ones being dicks for punching people in the nose. Not a single guy that misjudged some people’s in the audience’s reaction.

    Remember:

    Attacking individual != accomplishing something.

  17. mvo, I’m doing my best to keep my responses factual, and if I get a little hostile, it’s mostly at the nameless and abusive horde who feel impelled to get their two cents in without taking the responsibility of standing behind it.

    The aggression and hostility underscores that there’s a serious problem here. We can ignore it, and preserve the status quo (i.e. 1 woman in FLOSS for every 50 men) or we can try to change it.

    I decided to do what I can to try to change it. Folks who were upset with the presentation that was given at GoGaRuCo are likewise doing what they can to bring attention to the issue and try to change things.

    One thing’s certain: if no one brings up the issue, it’ll never change.

  18. Note that there are a lot of people who have been saying this routine is sexist (and anti-religious, and needlessly exclusive and divisive, and not representative of the community…) for those 15 years. As I understand it, some conferences have blacklists for this very reason.

  19. Lefty, what worries me is that you are treating Stallman more like a criminal than as a friend who needs some good advise about how to behave when there are adults around.

    Yes, the best thing Stallman could do is drop his St.Ignucious routine. It hurts his image and, by proxy, the image of Free Software, and maybe also a bit that of Open Source.

    But trying to drive him out of town, tarred and gziped? I wouldn’t want to be part of a community that does this to one of its founders. And maybe I am not, maybe the rift between Free Software and Open Source is actually much bigger than I thought.

  20. I’m not trying to drive him out of town, tar and feather him, treat him like a criminal, or anything of the sort. I’m not even that interested in getting him to knock off the “EMACS virgins” shtick. If he wants to do it on the sidewalk, fine. If he wants to go to an open mike night at a comedy club in Boston, fine. But it’s out of place in a keynote at a community conference.

    I laid out my concerns in what I thought was a pretty balanced and reasonable way. I got a non-response. I tried a second time, and got another one. He clearly doesn’t get what the issue is, and while he’s entitled to not get it, he can’t (in my opinion) be treated as “a leader of the Free Software community” and repeatedly not get it in front of large audiences without it being called what it is.

    As you say, he’s viewed as a representative of Free Software and (whether he likes it or not) open source software development as well. And that’s terrible public relations, just for starts. It hurts us all.

    If you have a friend who’s determinedly racist, and refuses to even acknowledge that he’s doing anything hurtful, then sometimes you have to make a choice between keeping him as a friend and creating the appearance that you’ve got no issues with the views he’s expressing.

  21. > I laid out my concerns in what I thought was a pretty balanced
    > and reasonable way. I got a non-response.

    I can’t agree with that at all, and I guess we have to leave it at that.

  22. > The aggression and hostility underscores that there’s a
    > serious problem here. We can ignore it, and preserve the
    > status quo (i.e. > 1 woman in FLOSS for every 50 men) or
    > we can try to change it.

    I don’t think your actions have helped to improve that situation.

  23. @drag

    Very nice comment.

    And don’t forget that unfortunately Mister lefty had his ego hurt, during the talk, by RMS.

  24. All that ‘i am not afraid..’ inanity was getting to me. Blogs like this one might show there are some sane individual thinkers around

  25. And don’t forget that unfortunately Mister lefty had his ego hurt, during the talk, by RMS.

    I did? Musta missed that…

  26. I don’t think your actions have helped to improve that situation.

    If Stallman gets invited to do fewer keynotes in the future, that surely won’t worsen the situation, in my opinion.

  27. @uraeus: the fact that people exaggerate the sexism doesn’t mean that the overall perception that nearly all people at the conference had of Dr. Stallman wasn’t that he’s an arrogant prick.

    It’s my opinion that this should be made crystal clear and that for this reason we should not invite Dr. Stallman to our conferences anymore (at least not as a speaker).

    But as I said before, I agree that the sexism is being a bit exaggerated (overall in the community, not just for this situation).

  28. @uraeus: No, I don’t think so .The gender ratio in the free software world is still worse than in the fully proprietary world, which at the very least strongly suggests that we have issues.

    The statistics we do have indicate that women in free software largely feel that they’re treated differently to men and that this discourages them from involvement. I’m not overly pleased with every aspect of how those statistics were generated, but they tightly match the experience of many women that I’ve spoken to on the subject. You’re arguing that I should ignore that evidence, but you’ve got no evidence to support that argument.

    1. @Matthew Garret: Well I guess the baseline issue here is that I don’t feel there is any real evidence showing that there is a problem of rampant sexism in the community and thus do not feel the need to spend time doing research to provide hard evidence countering that assertion. And we got very few black people in the community too, and I do not think that proves we got an issue of rampant racism in the community either. The statistic of women in proprietary software world isn’t necessary to relevant as it only proves that if you are paying women a salary they are willing to work for you. I don’t know the gender statistics for Red Hat or Novell, but if you want to compare with the proprietary world, that is where one should look. Not at the community in general.

      In general I think the reasons why there is an under representation of women (or blacks for that matter) is probably explained by a long range of complex historical and socio-economic factors and that we are grasping at sexism as an explanation model due to failing to understand those factors, more than a lot of evidence that
      the open source community is in fact riddled with sexism.

  29. I think St. Ignutius is RMS’s nightclub act–it just happens that technical conferences are his nightclubs. It wouldn’t cross the line in that setting.

    Probably, yes, his statements would be considered unprofessional at most technical conferences. But that is not the right frame of mind in which to approach the act. It’s obviously unfortunate that the act didn’t match the audience and possibly not the setting, but that’s more of a failure of communication on both parts than anything else.

    Given the relative difficulty of picking out sexist content from that act compared to some other presentations in the FOSS world (in which I include blogs), if the occasionally misplaced nightclub act were the worst problem the community would be in much worse shape than it is.

  30. If there’s no problem with rampent sexism in the community, why do most women in the community feel that they’ve been subject to sexism? Yes, I’ll happily admit that there are complex factors involved – the low proportion of women in computer science (still a vastly better number than the proportion in open source) is a pretty strong indication of that, leading to projects like CMU’s women in computer science program (http://women.cs.cmu.edu/). But by the same argument, I shouldn’t object to social injustice in the UK because at the global level there’s a large number of complex factors that result in wider social injustice. And that’s a shit argument.

  31. @uraeus: That is sexism. The fact that there is such a huge gap, those social and economic factors, and our culture at least partially reflects it.

    It’s frustrating participating in these conversations as a woman. The usually quiescent sexism, latent and imported from our culture, rears its ugly head. The talk shifts toward treating us like outsiders and externalities, that we need protection. Partly, it’s the fact that women will be absent from many discussions — I’m the only I know of on this thread! — and so can only be represented by proxy, but I suspect a lot of the attitude here is internal sexism, the chivalry of trying to protect the ‘weaker’ sex. Stop that. It’s really, really annoying. We’re not.

    RMS is, himself, I suspect a product of woman-free hacker culture. I consider him annoying, sexist-but-self-mocking-enough-to-ignore. The St. Ignucius routine is a schtick that’s offensive on a bunch of levels. I think that’s a symptom of the real problem, not the problem itself. I wouldn’t be put off from participating by him any more than I would by a presentation that makes reference to strippers. That’s the day-to-day sexism that I’m quite used to dealing with.

    1. @Aria: I agree that the general cultural, religious and economic factors of this world can and do cause direct and indirect sexist results. And I do think we need to constantly fight against such injustices. This argument for me has mostly been about if the open source community is more sexist than the world at large or not, and thus if its justified to brand the open source community in general as being especially sexist and thus causing women to shy away from it.

      That said I just had a longer conversation with a female coworker about the issue and her relating her experiences is causing me to re-evaluate my stance on how much sexism there actually is in the community in general. While I do think the general tendency in online discussions to degenerate to play a major part in this issue, I do see that the general degeneration can easily and often take a sexist tone towards women.

      I guess part of my ‘problem’ is that I spend most of my time in sub communities which hold a pretty civil level in its discourse in general, and thus the opportunities for sexist behaviour is rather small compared to projects where the normal mode of discourse is more scathing. This of course colours my view of things.

      Anyway, while I ponder this issue I will back of this debate a bit.

  32. If there were no problem with sexism, there would be approximately as many women here saying “there’s no problem—you’re making a big fuss out of nothing” as there are men. Or at least one-fiftieth.

    When Group A accuses Group B of oppressing them, Group B can’t unilaterally declare “No, we’re not”.

    Men’s opinions on societal misogyny are absolutely worthless. Men are blind to it—it’s called “privilege”: http://ur1.ca/3of5

    So, ignore me and *actually listen to a woman*. Don’t talk back. Listen.

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