Richard Stallman and the Fall of the Clueless Nerd

Stallman’s foibles are legend in the computer science world. People who never met him know about his quirks. There are many. When he travels to give speeches, he likes to stay with hosts rather than at hotels. A few years ago, a list of instructions emerged for those lucky hosts. It made the Rolling Stones look easy to please. He specifies, for example, that he likes parrots and would love to interact with a friendly parrot, but he hoped his hosts would not feel obliged to therefore buy a parrot just for his visit.

Generally, the word inappropriate doesn’t seem to be in his vocabulary. He once invited a friend of mine to lunch at a fancy restaurant, and she accepted, on the condition that he comb his hair and wear suitable attire. After a pleasant meal, he asked her if she minded if he danced. (Stallman is famously a lover of folk dancing.) “Go ahead,” she said, and he pranced around the tables, solo, in high-stepping glee, oblivious to the discomfort of diners.

That same obliviousness probably led to jokes in bad taste on email lists, and the scrawled name card on this door at MIT, where he was until yesterday a Visiting Scientist. “Richard Stallman,” it read, in black Sharpie, “Knight for Justice (Also: Hot Ladies).”

That name card is an image in the recent Medium post of MIT alumnus Selam Jie Gano, in which she demanded that he be tossed off the campus. Her essay is an example of the raised voices of women at MIT in the post-Epstein era, and maybe even in the tech world at large. “There is no single person that is so deserving of praise their comments deprecating others should be allowed to slide,” she wrote. “Particularly when those comments are excuses about rape, assault, and child sex trafficking.”


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If the question was When does obliviousness become inexcusable? Selam Jie Gano had an answer. Now. Especially when it goes hand in hand with a culture where, for decades, casual sexism has not been called out. Last week MIT graduate danah boyd, accepting a well-deserved award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, unloaded on her alma mater, citing years of sexual harassment, including an inappropriate comment from Minsky. The outrage is real and justified. This is the moment for amends.

And it’s certainly a terrible moment for Richard Stallman to dismiss the pain of sexual abuse by way of a syntactic argument.

Stallman keeps a running log of “political notes”—things that catch his interest, where he’ll post a link and often a comment. (That was the source of his earlier remarks on pedophilia.) On Monday, between entries on the Sacklers’ financial dealings and climate change, he slipped in a personal comment that ended an era, in many ways: “I am resigning effective immediately from my position in CSAIL at MIT. I am doing this due to pressure on MIT and me over a series of misunderstandings and mischaracterizations.” Later, the Free Software Foundation announced that its founder and president had resigned from that as well.

There are tragic threads to this Stallman story. His inability to understand the hurt that comes from insensitivity led to his expulsion from the world he knew and loved. I worry what will happen next for him. But the greater tragedy is how long it took for such behavior to become disqualifying. While Stallman is uniquely Stallman, he was also a representative of a culture that failed to welcome the women who could have led hacking, and computing, to even greater heights. Stallman is now more alone than I found him 35 years ago. But do not call him the last of his kind. More will fall as the reckoning continues.

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