Richard Stallman

Ars: On Further Reflection


Nathan Thompson

Warning: please be aware of the potentially off putting subject matter.

Lastly, I do not want to solely discuss controversies and focus on negative coverage on this site. Likewise, I realize this very article could open myself up to a similar critique. "If you hammered on Ars Technica about their lack of acknowledgement/coverage, why not call out outlet a, b, and c for their coverage or lack thereof concerning topic x, y, and z."

My previous words from my prior post on the failure of Ars Technica to address the controversy surrounding Peter Bright has put me in a bit of a pickle. Since that article, another tech controversy erupted over the appearance that Richard M Stallman, former head of the Free Software foundation and former employee of MIT was defending his former colleague and benefactor, Marvin Minsky. The latter having been accused of being one of the men purported to have raped underage women provided by convicted sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein.

There has been debates of whether:

  • Marvin Minksy actually was present for the alleged assault.
  • Richard M Stallman was actually defending sex with underage women.

Yet, it does not really matter, there was a tone deaf series of posts made by a man, Stallman, who has an unfortunate history of making people feel uncomfortable and as another fellow Stallman colleague posted:

Thomas Bushnell

This was an own-goal for RMS. He has had plenty of opportunities to learn how to stfu when that’s necessary. He’s responsible for relying too much on people’s careful reading of his note, but even that’s not the problem.

RMS treated the problem as being “let’s make sure we don’t criticize Minsky unfairly”, when the problem was actually, “how can we come to terms with a history of MIT’s institutional neglect of its responsibilities toward women and its apparent complicity with Epstein’s crimes”. While it is true we should not treat Minsky unfairly, it was not — and is not — a pressing concern, and by making it his concern, RMS signaled clearly that it was much more important to him than the question of the institution’s patterns of problematic coddling of bad behavior.

A fantastic point, astutely conveyed, the main problem simply is not whether a deceased man, Minsky, was getting a fair shake (which is not unfair to consider either, everyone deserves the chance to defend oneself from any allegation, no matter how heinous), but more, how does an institution caught up in a controversy of their own making, rightfully be held accountable? How is MIT going to rectify these major oversights?

I did not come to bury Richard Stallman because of his poorly worded, poorly timed defense of a now deceased, but formerly long standing friend. The fallout is predictable, understandable, and likely fitting. However, I will likewise acknowledge Stallman's decades long crusade for free software as laudable even if often considered a controversial (both from his Free software focus and in his personal interactions) and perhaps unsuitable ambassador for this goal. Either way, I have been influenced by such viewpoints. While I do not shy away from using proprietary software, I certainly have made a point of using and championing free software when possible. I am not zealously opposed to closed source software, but I have a preference for the freedoms granted by Free software.

Again, as a champion of actions, not words, I understand any institution can become corrupt. Complacency and the desire to defend the status quo is not good enough. The Free Software Foundation can survive without Richard Stallman. Possibly not just survive, but flourish with the injection of new people, new ideas, and new targets to Free (mobile and software as a service have long been sticking points due to their traditional lack of openness).

Whither Ars Technica

I think it high time to completely cut my readership with Ars Technica. I have noticed a trend for the site to call attention to, correctly as is their job as journalists covering the tech sector, malfeasance on a personal level of people in this field. While I am not sure I would want to make this entire site a running social commentary, even though my own feelings on social inequality are strongly held, I do understand there is room for such discussions on this or any site. However, if you are going to call attention to generally non technical matters, as is the case with Ars covering specific individuals and not actual technology, how can you not make a public statement to the fact your former Technology Editor was arrested for similarly heinous accusations similar to ones your news outlet continues to cover?

Again, would not this simple statement be enough to put this whole subject to rest?

Pursuant to the matter of Peter Bright's arrest on these serious charges, we have cut all ties with our former Technology Editor. On account of our prior professional relationship, we are abstaining from further coverage to allay concerns of any such conflict of interest impeding journalistic impartiality."

Whatever their belief on the matter, this sad chapter has stained their brand. I think it was telling Boing Boing, who is strongly partisan in their social commentary, yet can remain credible in their coverage, given they do not shy away from reporting on such subjects. I think Ars failed to walk this tightrope, engaging more on poking at people/institutions they do not like on a personal level, rather the covering the news in an honest or effective manner.

Was this article truly necessary? No, not at all. I am not even sure the purpose for my writing it. Perhaps just to remind myself people are flawed and no ideology, no matter how "pure", shields people and institutions from receiving proper social oversight. When we make mistakes, it is okay for someone to speak frankly and honestly about it, reinforcing the bonds of our joint social contract. No person is an island, one must not live alone, and our actions and words may have repercussions. Sometimes we have to make a statements or make a stand to hold true to our convictions. Sometimes, we are incorrect and we need to be called out on such words/actions.

While disappointing to see a person like Richard M. Stallman, in a position allowing them to be a contributor to the betterment of society, fail to live up to normal standards of decency, it is completely correct to hold such a person accountable. I applaud it, but regret we should even have to step in given the low bar we set for general level of interaction with each other. Stop making everyone around you uncomfortable, IN YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT NO LESS, thank you.