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RMS, and nerd sensitivities

More troublesome tech conference talk, this time by RMS. David Schlesinger posts an email exchange with him about a recent talk he gave:

The more significant problem was your comments regarding “EMAC virgins”, which you defined as being specifically “_women_ who had never used EMACS”, and for whom being “relieved” of this “virginity” was a “holy duty”. My reaction, and the reaction of a large number of members of the audience with whom I’ve spoken was one of great dismay.

Your remarks gave the distinct impression that you view women as being in particular need of technical assistance (presumably by men, since there’s apparently no such thing as a _male_ “EMACS virgin”); additionally, women are quite capable of making their own decisions about who might relieve them of whatever sort of “virginity”. I (and many others) viewed these remarks as denigrating and demeaning to women, as well as completely out of place at what is, in essence, a technical conference.

Stallman responds, but in this off-kilter, evasive way that doesn’t really address or attempt to refute the issue David is raising:

I am concerned about this reported hostile reaction. But I am not sure what to make of it, since it goes against nearly all the rest of my experience. I have had very few negative reactions to St IGNUcius in the past; the only one I can remember was from someone who was hostile to begin with. So this seems like an anomalous case. I don’t understand why it happened.

(Regarding the issue of publishing private email on a blog, I’d personally say it’s bad netiquette on David’s part, but not a huge breach in this case, since there nobody seems to be divulging any significantly personal or privileged information.)

I saw RMS speak this past January at CUSEC. I’m probably not the sort of person he’s trying to reach, not least because I’m more of an open source guy than a free software guy. Regardless, I wasn’t particularly impressed by his speaking style, or by the ideas he put forward. I’d say he was excessively concerned with grand ideological pronouncements, and not very interested in figuring out how to bring his language into terms that made sense to the audience at hand.

Listening to him use terms like “evil empire”, I was reminded of growing up in Minneapolis, talking to a lot of hippies in coffeeshops. Stallman had that same weary, half-sarcastic tone of voice that implied that he hadn’t changed his mind in a while, and he knew he was fighting an uphill battle, but he wasn’t interested in crafting his message to convince people in the middle-ground. Instead, he was going to use cartoonishly outrageous phrases, half-expecting to lose without trying a different tactic. I’d heard that tone of voice a lot in Minneapolis. It’s not the tone of a diplomat, or even a martyr: It’s the tone of a pessimist. Or of a cynic.

But that’s to be expected, right? It’s not Stallman’s job to be presentable to other people. He’s too smart for that. I don’t think it’s too much to say that he fits squarely within the category of old-school hacker: Nobody doubts his computing chops or his contributions to the field, but at the same time there’s a lot of leeway given to the fact that his social skills aren’t quite in line with what many other people would consider normal. That’s part of what complicates this whole issue, of techie guys getting up in front of tech conferences and saying dumb things that offend people. It’s not like some Wall Street guys being assholes at a bar. Your typical Wall Street guy doesn’t work in a world where idiosyncrasies are not only tolerated, but subconsciously associated with genius.

There are a significant number of people who like the bleeding-edge tech scene because they feel they can be themselves—that is to say, they can say what they want and not worry that other people won’t be able to handle it. And to a large extent I agree with them. Compared to, say, some academic conferences, I think it’s a beautiful thing that people will routinely get up and argue with a speaker during the Q&A. There’s a candor in the scene that is refreshing, and if people feel it’s a bit rough-and-tumble as a result, overall I often think it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.

But there’s candor, and then there are stupid crude jokes. If you talk to me at a conference and you tell me you think I’m a dumbass because of how I wrote my newest open-source library, maybe you’ll hurt my feelings, sure, but maybe other people around will listen in on the discussion and think “yeah, maybe I won’t use that new library”, and maybe that’s useful. It’s even possible that after some time I’ll think “I hate to admit it, but that asshole was right.”

But if you’re making a completely stupid joke about relieving women of their EMACS virginity, and by the way, you’re a bearded programmer who’s wearing a t-shirt that stretches revealingly across your Mountain Dew belly, and by many reports you sort of smell, then half the audience is too busy thinking “ew” to think of anything else—what was the point of that, again? What point about EMACS or free software are you trying to make?

And yeah, I guess the point was to poke fun at religion, which I guess is like really edgy if you grew up gay in a Mormon family or something. I’m a sort of atheist-Buddhist-existentialist myself, but most importantly, I’m over it. In my experience the only people who really love that kind of dorky anti-religion humor are pissed-off Marilyn Manson fans living in Florida. To which my advice is: Move the fuck out of Florida. Seriously, why would you live there?

Anyway. Here we have the problem, where I’m saying RMS shouldn’t say that kind of shit when he’s speaking in front of a large audience. But you’re not supposed to tell anyone in the techie world what they can and can’t say, especially not a nerd genius like RMS.

Problem is, at a certain point, the unrestricted right of free expression in the techie scene starts to look an awful lot like one particular form of majority privilege: The privilege of acting as if everybody else is like you. By which I mean this: Women know that there are subtle ways in which they are treated differently than men. Black people know that there are subtle ways in which they are treated differently than white people. And although there are a lot of white men who are reasonably conscious of these differences, there are still plenty who are ignorant of them, and may not believe you if you tell them. “People stare at you on the subway here in Barcelona? That couldn’t be because you’re black. Are you sure that’s not just in your head?”

So that’s a big dimension of this problem in techie scenes: I don’t know how easy it is to separate “I just want to say what I’m thinking” from “If you get upset when I use these words, that must be because it’s all in your head.” I have a feeling it has to do somehow with caring less about pure ideas, and more about how they are received by other human beings. But in some ways, that feels antithetical to the spirit, or at least the history, of computer programming itself.

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Tagged: gender, tech

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