RMS, Minsky, and the Search for Truth


Categories: GeekStuff Politics

Richard Stallman stepped down from the FSF recently. I don’t think it was necessarily 100% voluntary. This came about in part because of a highly critical article about his behavior, pointing out ways in which he has behaved poorly.

One of the complaints people have had persistently about his behavior is a tendency to offer what seem to be defenses of extremely bad behavior. In recognition of his influential leadership in the field of self-referential acronyms (e.g., “GNU’s Not Unix”), I’m going to write a perhaps self-referential piece in which I argue that the actual behavior he engaged in is not necessarily the same as the behavior he is accused of. But because I have studied and considered human emotions and behavior, I’m also going to try to do a better job of clarifying what I am defending, and also what I am not defending.

Quoting and representation

First off: RMS has been very unambiguously, and substantively, misrepresented in some of the writing about this. Here’s the relevant quote from his email:

The accusation quoted is a clear example of inflation. The reference reports the claim that Minsky had sex with one of Epstein’s harem.


We can imagine many scenarios, but the most plausible scenario is that she presented herself to him as entirely willing.

Let’s look at a typical description of what he said. Here’s a headline, from vice.com:

Famed Computer Scientist Richard Stallman Described Epstein Victims As ‘Entirely Willing’

[…] Early in the thread, Stallman insists that the “most plausible scenario” is that Epstein’s underage victims were “entirely willing” while being trafficked. […]

The headline is a straight up lie, and so is that summary of what he said. Stallman’s claim was that it was most plausible (unstated: to him) that the person (singular) Minsky had sex with had presented herself to Minsky as “entirely willing”. The headline and summary claim that the people (plural) that Epstein was trafficking were “entirely willing” – not just “presenting as”. That’s at least three substantive differences, and they matter. RMS’s points out that if the victim were being coerced, it would make sense for Epstein to coerce the victim also to pretend not to be coerced. He’s completely aware that coercion is an issue here.

The original piece quotes him more accurately, but still misrepresents what he says somewhat:

The reference reports the claim that Minsky had sex with one of Epstein’s harem…Let’s presume that was true (I see no reason to disbelieve it).

…and then he says that an enslaved child could, somehow, be “entirely willing”. Let’s also note that he called a group of child sex trafficking victims a ‘harem’, a terrible word choice.

But he didn’t say that an enslaved child could be “entirely willing”. He said that they could present as willing – and “present as” has pretty strong connotations that the presentation is untrue.

RMS didn’t say the thing that he’s accused of saying. But.

That does not make the thing he said actually okay.

And this, I think, is where part of the problem comes in. When people defend their friends, or their heroes, or even just their politically-expedient allies, there’s a strong temptation to correct errors… and then stop there, pleased at having defended someone from an unjust thing. But when the actual behavior was also bad in some way, I think it’s very important to make sure you also point that out – so the victims of the actual behavior don’t feel like they’re being dismissed or ignored.

What RMS said was stupid, and he should not have said it. I’m just going to focus on two words here: “most plausible”.

Humans are not good at evaluating each other. In particular, if you talk to the friends and family of any actual child molestor, you will usually find that they initially react with disbelief. They know the accused is “not like that”. How? Well, for one thing, the accused is nice. And the accused has never molested them. It turns out that our ability to evaluate what is “plausible” about a person is complete garbage. You should never, ever, be relying on whether you think something someone you know is accused of is “plausible”. That is not a reasonable basis for speculation.

There is some substantive discussion to be had about how we handle terms like “assault” in the context of coercion. There’s substantive discussion to be had on how the same thing could be unambiguously rape, or unambiguously not rape, depending on which side of a tent it happens on. Those are real issues… And they are not especially relevant to the scenario under discussion. It is conceivable that, in 2001, Minsky was not aware of Epstein’s apparent ties to child sex trafficking. However, the circumstances under which a minor child whose parents are not present ends up on a private jet with a billionaire are perhaps worth wondering about. Is Minsky really accused of being too stupid to consider the possibility that Something Was Up? That seems silly.

Honestly, if RMS had just said “possible” rather than “most plausible”, I think he’d have had a much more defensible position. After all, we do cherish the presumption of innocence; it’s reasonable to say “it is possible that this person did not do this thing”. What’s at issue here is in part the arrogance and stupidity of the plausibility claim.

People change their minds

Another citation is to a quote, from 2006, where Stallman said:

I am skeptical of the claim that voluntarily pedophilia harms children. The arguments that it causes harm seem to be based on cases which aren’t voluntary, which are then stretched by parents who are horrified by the idea that their little baby is maturing.

This is, indeed, a thing he said. Another thing he said (September 14th of 2019) is:

“Many years ago I posted that I could not see anything wrong about sex between an adult and a child, if the child accepted it,” Stallman wrote. “Through personal conversations in recent years, I’ve learned to understand how sex with a child can harm per psychologically. This changed my mind about the matter: I think adults should not do that. I am grateful for the conversations that enabled me to understand why.”

I think it’s important, and substantive, that he’s retracted the earlier claim. I think it would be inaccurate and unfair to him to portray the earlier claim as his stance on the issue.

But I also think his initial stance is the sort of thing that maybe should not have been said in the first place, because it is very easy to find research on this topic. It turns out, a lot of small children who voluntarily have sex with adults are, in fact, fully “consenting” at the time, insofar as they can – but they are not giving informed consent, and it appears to very consistently produce lasting and probably permanent trauma, which doesn’t always show up until they hit the point at which their brain starts having all the relevant instincts.

As a claim that this is what he believes, it’s false. As a claim that him having said it is evidence that he’s ill-suited to a role as a community leader, it’s pretty compelling. Community leadership is not adequately served merely by being willing to correct errors; it tends to require some ability to anticipate that something could be a source of controversy, and at least do some basic superficial research before you start talking.

Truth rather than defenses

A popular Youtube personality, PewDiePie, has been accused on occasion of anti-semitism, or of tolerating anti-semitism among his fans, or various other things. I don’t really feel like exploring this in detail, but it does offer a beautiful example.

PewDiePie had made an announcement about retracting plans to donate money to the Anti-Defamation League, and during it, he was wearing a jacket with a logo on it which could easily be mistaken for an Iron Cross, a symbol often adopted by neo-Nazis. People debated whether this was an accident or an intentional signal. In response, someone wrote an article with the headline PewDiePie Accidentally Puts on Entire KKK Uniform in Middle of Game Stream .

One of the first responses, from one of PewDiePie’s fans, was a derisive Tweet saying “Did people forget that he did this as a joke?”

But it’s important to understand: The article was satire. The events in question had not happened. There was no KKK uniform. He didn’t do it at all, which means he didn’t do it as a joke. Which is to say, the defense offered was a lie. It wasn’t said because the writer thought it was true; it was not based on a memory of the events, because there were no events to remember. It was made up immediately as a reflexive response, to make the criticism Go Away, by asserting that the behavior was “just a joke” and therefore didn’t count.

But once you know that the defenders will do that even for things which never happened, that gives you reason to be skeptical of whether they are accurate when they claim that things that did happen were jokes, too.

If you want to stick up for truth, and do so effectively, you have to be very careful to distinguish between defending the truth, and defending people. In this piece, I’m not telling you that RMS is fine and has never acted poorly, I’m saying that in some cases, the specific accusations appear to be materially false – but that even then, there is substantive truth to the higher-level accusations that his behavior is often poor and has reflected badly on the FSF and on MIT.

So what should we do?

Here’s an experiment to try: If you think that accusations are misleading, stop and consider whether there’s substance to them, or near them, that’s worth talking about. And if there is, directly engage with that, possibly before you start offering possible defenses. If you think someone genuinely didn’t do a bad thing, don’t just say that – be sure to acknowledge that the thing would be bad if they did it. And if later evidence shows that they did it, don’t make new excuses.

RMS could have saved everyone a ton of trouble here if he’d said that if Minsky did indeed have sex with a coerced underage girl (and there’s no obvious reason to doubt that this happened), this was indeed not okay. If he wanted to defend Minsky, he could have argued that, if Minsky had found out that the girl was a victim of coercion, he would also certainly agree that the behavior was wrong and that he regretted it, and seek to make amends. That would be a way of characterizing Minsky as a decent person which didn’t start by suggesting that the accuser was wrong and anyway Minsky didn’t do anything bad. Would it be accurate? I have no idea. I don’t know Minsky. Most people I have talked to who have found out that a sexual partner was not as willing as they thought have been deeply horrified by the discovery, though. Wishing to make amends and express regret is pretty close to universal.

And a brief digression

Politics is particularly prone to layered, nested, and mutually-exclusive defenses. I’ve seen people say that the same thing (1) didn’t happen, (2) was a joke, (3) was not an actual stance but merely a bargaining position, (4) was misinterpreted because it shouldn’t have been taken literally, (5) was misinterpreted because it should have been taken literally, and (6) wasn’t a bad thing because look here someone else did a similar thing at one point. Heck, I’ve seen at least four of those for the same exact incident from the same person over a period of a couple of years.

It’s also prone to layered, nested, and mutually exclusive attacks. Same problem.

Don’t do this. Don’t let “X is good” or “X is bad” become the primary claims, with all the other claims subordinated to them. Pursue truth. Start with factual claims, and if they turn out to be wrong, acknowledge that they’re wrong, and think about how this should change your opinion. If learning that the factual claims are wrong doesn’t change your opinion, something has gone horribly wrong. Stop and check that out more carefully.

UPDATE: More thoughts from someone more thoughtful

Thomas Bushnell wrote a piece on this topic. He knows RMS personally, and his analysis on RMS’s behavior is more thoughtful. And he’s quite right that the question of whether the reporting on RMS’s behavior in this one email thread is the most important thing going on is far from the most important topic. Inaccuracies are a pet peeve of mine, but he’s absolutely right that other considerations are perhaps more pressing.

I also share his feeling that RMS’s difficulties with social things are tragic, despite not being externally-imposed. I have known people who struggle with this kind of thing many times, and I wish I could figure out how to explain the problem to them, but thus far I have never succeeded in doing so.