Theresa O’Connor

On empathy

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.