On empathy

by Theresa O’Connor on 16 August 2007

Recently, an old post of mine, in which I accuse RMS of lacking in empathy, got a flurry of attention all over. This is my reply to the points about empathy made in comments, in email, on reddit, etc.

Several people concurred with mhaggag, that this is not about skill. It’s about not being an asshole. Yup, that’s pretty much the crux of it: not being an asshole is the minimum, basic norm of social behavior that we should all demand of each other. This norm takes on an extra layer of importance when you consider RMS’s leadership role, both in the Emacs project, as in this specific incident, and in general as an important figure in free software and free culture. Pat Maddox nails it:

I think that after someone puts their hard work and valuable time into an open source project, it’s probably a good idea to share good will with them when something very joyous occurs in their [life]. The author isn’t criticizing Stallman’s intellectual argument, just saying that he is severely lacking in empathy. Leaders and prominent figures of any community are a lot better off when they empathize with the members of that community.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

But empathy cuts both ways: ishmal took me to task for not empathizing with RMS:

Of course RMS is a bit short on people skills, but you know what? You need to show empathy for that type of personality, too. It’s not a one-way street. You should be mature enough to appreciate the good in everyone.

Jim goes so far as to suggest that I demon[ize RMS] for not sharing [my] values.

I think somewhere in here is a fair point: my characterization of his flaws could be (and should have been) written up in a more respectful way. Things like his utter lack of human empathy could be toned down, and the speculation about Asperger’s could be skipped entirely. That said, I don’t think that I demonized him.

Ryan thinks that RMS’s anti-natalist stance is grounded in empathy:

From my understanding, given the fact that RMS criticizes (or simply doesn’t congratulate) human reproduction, you argue that RMS lacks human empathy. I think that his statements imply the opposite— he is very empathetic. Furthermore, his empathy is the motivation for his statements.

I talk about anti-natalism and Malthusian catastrophes in my post on overpopulation. I don’t think his anti-natalism lacks empathy, although I disagree with it. It’s his social behavior that lacks empathy. (N.B. Pat Maddox’s comment, quoted earlier.)

Regardless of RMS’s empathy, it seems that the author disagrees with RMS’s ideas. If you disagree with a person’s ideas, criticize the ideas, don’t attack the person’s mental health.

On this, Ryan and I are in full agreement.


  1. Living Chopin

    RMS deserves respect as a person, but no empathy. The saying is, "Give no quarter where no quarter is given." Both RMS and his pal Lawrence Lessig here at Stanford were out for ruthless blood, in their war against Authors' rightful compensations and livelihoods. This Creative Commons bullshit, while having some use for this particular site, is apparently named after socialist principles, which by definition disrespects christian ethics of rightful pay for one's labor and private ownership.

    Since I believe both RMS and Lessig have used sleights of hand in their publications to allegedly induce and promote widespread piracy, thus undermining our Constitution itself, in addition to undermining the entire fabric of society's sense of lawfulness, they deserve to have their allegedly intentional deceptions of the public be exposed. Matthew 18 does not require any "empathy" for those who are genuinely sinning against their neighbors without any sense of remorse. I urge you Christian Authors to invoke both Darwin: Kill or be killed, and Matthew 18, which ironically, will stand the test of Time, being the Fittest of all laws for enforcing Accountability via Deterrence. Give no quarter to RMS and Lessig, and their millions of mindless moo-ing Disciples, since they give none to you.

    Living Chopin, 22 August 2007

  2. Copyright Agent

    I think Ryan and Patt Maddox at the end have a point, criticize the ideas not the mental health. However, even in the realm of ideas, the choice of ideologies in particular often indicates a propensity for social health or social ills. i.e. the certain ideas, an extreme example being Carl Marx's, Hitler's, Stalins, can have global consequences, and societal costs on a macroeconomic level. When a public figure actively promotes IP piracy for instance, it is entirely reasonable to assume that it has social consequences, and that this person is lacking in empathy for those who are IP authors, such as programmers, musicians, inventors, who have mouths to feed and rent to pay.

    The Living Chopin comments are quite interesting, because he (or she?) raises points that relate to this topic of empathy and ethics, in a valid Biblical and Legal context. Perhaps it was lacking in empathy to label Mr. (or Mrs?) Living Chopin as a Troll, because maybe you programmers without a clue about the costs of music production are yourselve quick to judge a person / artist who likely lost his/her livelihood to the sum effects of over 180million of you routinely and daily committing Piracy without any second thought.

    The empathy discussion applies here, because the moderator criticized RMS for lack of empathy, and others rose up to defend RMS, while Living Chopin arrived out of the blue to provide a fresh and very relevant perspective on RMS, empathy, law, biblical alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, actually siding with the moderator with even more specific reasons why RMS's socialistic aspects were harmful to his livelihood and to larger society, and why those particular ideas deserve no empathy or sympathy.

    However, as RMS is only human, he deserves empathy in the sense of asking, "What made RMS that way?" What made Living Chopin that way? If they faced real tragedies which created a psychological hot button for them, then you the reader should learn to read in between the lines before labelling this person or that as lacking empathy, or as a Troll.

    Since I enforce Copyrights, I agree with Living Chopin, that RMS's ideas on subverting Copyrights are wrong, lacking in empathy for authors and composers in particular, and since 180 million Americans also lack empathy for copyright authors, and respect for Copy law, this point on Empathy is highly relevant.

    Copyright Agent, 22 August 2007

  3. All Stallman had to do was ignore the post. It wasn't even a birth "announcement," it was a justification for not being as available. Stallman can disagree with the idea of procreation all he wants, but he also should have said nothing rather than ridicule a VOLUNTEER in a public forum.

    Adam, 31 August 2007

  4. After seeing RMS's Free Software Song and seeing that he was deadly serious about it, I think I learnt that Something About Richard Wasn't Quite Right.

    I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw all these comments in support of RMS being a complete asshole.

    Richard lives in a world of academia where it's completely fine to not give a fuck about what anyone else thinks as long as you provide a legitimate (or at least arguable) base for your argument.

    But he's way off base here, as it's been said, a leader cannot take a stance like this. a good leader picks his battles too - because what's more condusive to your movement, making a point which guarantees offense of a valued contributor, or being a little understanding.

    You encourage communities, interactions, understand that people have cultural feelings; with the same religious zeal that RMS espouses about Linux (yes, I'm calling it Linux by it's own woooooo0o0o, I will show RMS no quarter).

    What would seem the logical conclusion to me, is that if RMS did have his way, and people did think like RMS did there would be no FLOSS movement.

    Because, all of these smart people would get the hell on board, and they wouldn't be having kids. Did anyone see Idiocracy? As funny as it is I think it has a point.

    Let programmers announce with pride that they have progeny!

    Becky In The Trailer Park who just popped three out on the floor I think would be less conducive towards encouraging the free software movement - primarily I would think because they didn't know about it.

    Because between the two types of environment for children to learn and appreciate the FOSS philosophy, I would pick the emacs programming parents over Becky in the Trailer park.

    Not to say that it wouldn't happen in the trailer park, I just think at this point in history, it would be much less likely.

    Ergo, RMS fucks up his own chances by being a dick on the internet.

    Moral: Don't be a dick on the Internet to people who help you.

    postal, 20 February 2009

  5. Not only is RMS's empathy totally absent, but he doesn't even show any gratitude for the work already done.

    gus3, 29 August 2009