Theresa O’Connor

The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Richard Stallman

In which I consider the latest example of Richard Stallman’s utter lack of human empathy.

Dramatis Personæ

Richard M. Stallman (RMS)
founder of the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation, head developer of GNU Emacs, etc., etc., etc.
Stefan Monnier
Professeur adjoint, Université de Montréal, and Emacs developer
Luc Teirlinck
Professor, Auburn University, and Emacs developer
Nick Roberts
Emacs developer

Act I

Luc proposes a small change to Emacs:

I propose to change paragraph-start in Shell mode and Ielm[…]

I can install if desired.

After some discussion, the change is made, but problems with the change are soon discovered. (You can read the whole thread over at gmane if you’re interested in the technical details, which are irrelevant to my purpose here.) RMS sensibly decides that reverting the change is best, and asks Stefan to implement:

This is very disturbing news.

There are only two ways out of this squeeze: to back up to the previous consistent design, or move forward to a new one. One advantages in moving back is that we know where the changes would have to be made. We don’t know all the places that would have to be changed to move forward.

Since the change was not made intentionally, and since there is no great advantage in this alteration in the specifications of paragraph-start, I think it is best if we move back.

Stefan, can you work on that?

Stefan is very understandably busy with his new daughter, and thus can’t help just now:

I just got a baby girl and am kind of swamped.

RMS fails to offer the customary congratulations, or in fact any amount of human understanding:

I am sorry to hear it. Unless someone else can figure these things out, I guess the release has to wait until you have time. [Emphasis mine.]

Now at this point you might assume that RMS is only disappointed that Stefan doesn’t have the time to work on Emacs, and that he’s not disappointed in Stefan’s particular reason. Such an assumption would be mistaken.

Nick very reasonably offers Stefan the opposite sentiment:

Congratulations, Stefan! I suggest that you spend any spare time with your daughter as she will grow up before you know it. Emacs, on the other hand, will still be around after she has left home.

RMS believes he didn’t make himself sufficiently clear before, and expounds upon his earlier callousness:

It doesn’t take special talents to reproduce—even plants can do it. On the other hand, contributing to a program like Emacs takes real skill. That is really something to be proud of.

It helps more people, too.



I’m not even sure where to start with this one. Yes, I realize that RMS most likely suffers from a fairly extreme form of Asperger’s syndrome, and as such is probably quite unaware of how offensive he is. But seriously people, it’s not hard to treat other people with respect. In fact, it’s pretty easy. And this is by no means an isolated incident; the history of the free software movement is littered with good people parting ways with RMS over behavior like this. I hope that Stefan continues to contribute to Emacs, but I would certainly understand it if he quits.

Addendum 1

After alerting the kind folks in #emacs to this post, bojohan pointed me to this 1993 flame from RMS on the common practice of posting birth announcements to mailing lists (emphasis mine):

Could people please not use this list to announce information of no particular interest to the people on the list? Hundreds of thousands of babies are born every day. While the whole phenomenon is menacing, one of them by itself is not newsworthy. Nor is it a difficult achievement—even some fish can do it. (Now, if you were a seahorse, it would be more interesting, since it would be the male that gave birth.)


These birth announcements also spread the myth that having a baby is something to be proud of, which fuels natalist pressure, which leads to pollution, extinction of wildlife, poverty, and ultimately mass starvation.

I wonder if RMS is a member of the Church of Euthanasia, who encourage us all to save the planet; kill yourself.

Addendum 2

Here’s an example going all the way back to 1978, replying to the hoopla over the first mass, unsolicted, commercial email, the very first spam (emphasis his):

I didn’t receive the DEC message, but I can’t imagine I would have been bothered if I have. I get tons of uninteresting mail, and system announcements about babies born, etc. At least a demo might have been interesting.

Addendum 3

In August 2007, this post got a flurry of attention on reddit, digg, and on blogs all over.

I’ve written three posts in response to all of the comments and emails I’ve received: one on empathy, one on hypocrisy, and one on overpopulation.