Open letter to Neil McGovern

Neil McGovern recently published an article entitled GNOME relationship with GNU and the FSF where he described parts of an e-mail exchange from Dr. Richard Stallman as “reprehensible” and called for him stepping down from his position at the Free Software Foundation. This eventually happened.

Mr. McGovern decided to close comments on his blog entry. I respect this decision, especially because the topic is bound to attract troll commenters and an attempt to moderate the discussion might just take too much effort. I might end up doing the same. However, I disagree with Mr. McGovern’s assessment and believe it shouldn’t remain without a response. I figured out that an open letter might be the right way to respond.

I’d like to stress that I’m, unlike Mr. McGovern, not speaking for GNOME, my colleagues, fellow hackers, my employer or anyone else but myself. Don’t cancel your GNOME Foundation membership because you think either of us is wrong. Engage in civilized discussion!

Mr. McGovern,

On your blog you wrote:

This came after the president of the FSF made some pretty reprehensible remarks saying that the “most plausible scenario is that [one of Epstein’s underage victims] presented themselves as entirely willing” while being trafficked.

I credit you for not twisting Dr. Stallman’s words and quoting them verbatim. I very much wish this was the case for the tabloid media that covered the same issue.

There’s no question that the lady in question has been subject to a terrible abuse and emotional distress. Dr. Stallman does not question that. Nor does he turn a blind eye — in the very same document as you linked to he does condemn the perpetrator.

It seems to me that Dr. Stallman has been punished by his forced resignation for the mere crime of touching a sensitive subject. This should not happen in a healthy discussion. Otherwise we’d let taboos exclude topics from discourse and we’ll all be poorer for not having them discussed.

I’m aware that Dr. Stallman has a history of making controversial remarks about topics such as necrophilia or pedophilia. Perhaps that is what you mean by claiming that “this isn’t the only incident”. I don’t know whether he’s capable of recognizing that those subjects are taboo. But precisely because of the taboo surrounding them the majority opinion has no chance but to end up getting formed without a reasonable discussion. Can you blame anyone for challenging it?

I applaud your and GNOME’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. It is also my commitment. I also do understand that sometimes there might not be a more fortunate way of dealing with those whose conduct harms others than to exclude them from the community. I’d just be somewhat happier if we grew more capable of listening and concentrated on getting the message right instead of obsessing over clumsy wording and personal quirks. We all have some.


(Thanks to those who proof-read the letter and corrected many embarrassing mistakes, though they wish not to be named.)

Published by

Lubomir Rintel

A free software enthusiast, Fedora contributor and a NetworkManager developer.

14 thoughts on “Open letter to Neil McGovern”

  1. I think this is perhaps the main misunderstanding. This was not something that happened just because of some bad reporting, or indeed because of discussion of sensitive subjects. This is a position that has reached this point after decades of issues and problematic behaviour – from handing out “pleasure cards” to the “EMACS virgins” issue.

    My request for FSF to find new leadership was not because of the motherboard/vice article. It was that we have tried every other method available to us to adjust these issues and behaviours, and all of these have failed.

    1. I can accept all you opinion on this if this happened one year ago or one year after.
      The question is why now? Do you need a sex trafficker’s help to make a point? Shame on you.

  2. Your whole blog post is somewhat posited on the assumption that all of this mess is contingent on the very latest stupid thing Richard has written in a public setting; it’s really not. It’s a pattern of behaviour that has been going on for the past 40 years. People have talked to Richard; people have forked his projects; people have left his projects; FSF board members left the board because of his untenable positions, lack of introspection, and unwillingness to listen and change.

    I’d strongly recommend you read this (very kind) article from the former maintainer of GNU Hurd, and realise how much has RMS hurt the community and the free software movement with his actions over the past four decades.

    Side note: I’d be curious to know who proofread this nuclear take of yours:

    But precisely because of the taboo surrounding [paedophilia] the majority opinion has no chance but to end up getting formed without a reasonable discussion.

    Because this is certainly not something we need to renegotiate in 2019. I’m fairly sure we had ethics discussions and, more importantly, passed laws on the topic. We’re way, way past “a reasonable discussion”. My recommendation would be to remove this whole section, because it doesn’t really help your case—thin as it is already. It also does not merit to be on Planet GNOME.

    1. How hard is it to provide some reliable proof for people unfamiliar rather than bashing people for a mere post stating their personal (and honestly far more logical and polite than almost all the “opinions” you see from people on this matter) opinion? Neither you nor the post you mentioned and not even the post which started all this bring up a single proof on anything.

      And it’s just very simple, either you (plural) knew all this mess from the beginning and you didn’t say much, which makes you a culprit, or you’re just following the trend of character assassinations with no logical proof. And I can’t decide which one is worse.

      Your image in the community is not far better than the things you accuse others of, if not worse. You might not discriminate towards women but your attitude is far from professional regarding to “anyone” (which some might argue is worse than just women alone).
      And this very comment should prove that by itself.

      1. How hard is it to provide some reliable proof

        I’d strongly recommend you Google it, and listen to women who have reported this stuff over the years.

        But, thanks to my pediatric all seeing eye, I can already bet you’ll reply saying you don’t believe these reports, and the people that made them have a vested, or hidden, interest in marginalising Stallman.

        I’d recommend you moved to other tactics; these are wearing thin.

        And it’s just very simple, either you (plural) knew all this mess from the beginning and you didn’t say much

        We, as a community, already raised the issue, the latest time in Gran Canaria at the 2009 Desktop Summit, where there was a walkout after Richard did his sexist shtick on emacs virgins, and then proceeded to harass open source developers working on Mono.

        Indeed, we have raised the issue multiple times, and nothing ever happened. This time, it seems, consequences have caught up with Richard, and we would have been hypocrites if we didn’t support the call for his resignation.

        But thanks for playing, anyway.

        Your image in the community is not far better than the things you accuse others of, if not worse.

        I’m somewhat skeptical that an anonymous comment on a blog is representative of what the community thinks. In fairness, we’ve received much more support than negative feedback.

  3. Thank you for showing us that Neil McGovern’s opinion is just his opinion (not the whole GNOME community).

    Personally I think he made a huge mistake and I hope he reconsider to apologize and support RMS.

  4. There are many brilliant people in the world. Stallman doesn’t have a lock on that, despite his contributions to his field. His decades of deplorable behavior more than negate any good will points his previous achievements have accumulated in his favor. It is long past the time that the FSF cut him loose and let other, less reprehensible people take leadership roles in the community.

    That you can’t see that, frankly, casts shade upon your own moral fitness. Hero worship is not a good look, especially when the hero has been revealed to be a monster.

    Just drop it. Let Stallman fade into the dustbin of history as he should, and don’t let him drag you down with him.

    1. Lubomir explicitly says that he understands that people may need to be cut loose. As such, I don’t think that your argument holds. You are spinning his attempt at trying to defend what he believes is a good discussion culture into a moral failure. That only works if you merrily see it as a defence of Richard. But even if this was the case, defending one specific instance of behaviour does not imply that he is morally aligning himself with Richard.
      Really, this looks like a classic case of the association fallacy.

      Apart from that argument, Lubomir seems to primarily criticising the way that Neil has done his messaging. Asking Neil to hold up a high standard even if the person on the receiving end is perceived as a “monster” seems perfectly reasonable.

      I don’t think the question here is whether trying to remove Richard from his position in the FSF was right or wrong. The question raised here seems to be focused on what standard we set for our community. And, whether we as a community and Neil specifically lived up to that standard in this instance.

    2. Almost everyone like you is parroting these “decades of deplorable behaviour” nonsense. Please be specific? What are you even talking about? Was RMS ever accused of sexual harassment, of any other type sexual impropriety? The last hit-job from Selam G. basically sprouts a bunch of hearsay, about what at best can be characterized as RMS’ socially awkward behaviour around women. What mob-SJW like you are trying to do essentially boils down to thought-policing. You might be feel sanguine that you are above the fray today, but once mob-rule is the norm and basic due-process and due-diligence gets chucked out of the window no one is safe anymore.

  5. > Just drop it. Let Stallman fade into the dustbin of history as he should, and don’t let him drag you down with him.

    Well said. Even if the last incident was a bad choice to be a “last straw”, we just have to move on, and it’s better to move on without him.

  6. Neil speaks with the support of the GNOME Foundation board and received dozens of thanks from the GNOME community for adopting this position on behalf of the project.

    We are committed to creating a diverse and inclusive community, and a pre-requisite to that is calling out and distancing ourselves from people who are unable to conduct themselves without alienating, threatening and excluding others.

    Fundamentally there are two things going on here; one is the internal tensions of the free software community and our individual culpability in allowing Richard Stallman’s previous contributions and achievements to excuse his conduct. There are so many examples of this, but has a reasonable collection.

    Secondly are his hurtful and ill-conceived comments which were widely (and poorly) reported and brought a great deal of external attention to the free software movement.

    The reason they connect is because everyone realised; this is what the world sees of us when RMS speaks on our behalf. And this is why we must act. Deb Nicholson wrote it very well in this mail:

    > I don’t think a situation where many people associate the free software
    > movement with misogyny and pedophilia is doing the movement any favors. And
    > that’s where we are. I do feel emotionally about this because it is a huge
    > waste of my time to try and bring new people to this movement and then
    > later have to apologize for the ton of unchecked sexism that happens in
    > many of our spaces and mailing lists.
    > I’m done with allowing one person’s pedantic compulsions and gaping blind
    > spots around how tech treats women continue to hamper the work of
    > empowering users. It’s time to separate the sexism and — the erasure of
    > victims of pedophilia — from the free software movement. I won’t be
    > encouraging people to participate in free software communities that won’t
    > commit to doing better at that extremely low bar.
    > Deb

  7. What the GNOME Foundation did is extremely serious and I’m not gonna let it go this time. You credit Neil McGovern for verbatim quoting, however he purposely left out the very next line:

    >Assuming she was being coerced by Epstein,
    >he would have had every reason to tell her
    >to conceal that from most of his associates.

    which explains how RMS is condemning Epstein for his coercive power over the girl. McGovern instead mislabels RMS words as “reprehensible remarks” and thus supports the lying headlines accusing RMS of saying the girl was willing.

    What I would have expected was a healthy community defending one of its members from false accusations by dishonest media, what I got instead was the Executive Director of the GNOME Foundation and prominent GNOME developers seizing this opportunity to get rid of someone exploiting false news. This is unacceptable hypocrisy and left me with no trust or respect whatsoever for important GNOME people.

    I don’t want people believing the end justify the means to be given any decision-making power, thus from now on I’ll keep observing GNOME from a distance.

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