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April 19, 2021

A critique of the open letter to "remove RMS", based on the GNU Kind Communications Guidelines

Recently, an open letter was published with the title "An open letter to remove Richard M. Stallman from all leadership positions". Many people have signed the letter; at the time of writing, 61 organizations have signed, and there are 3010 individual signatures.

There are some serious problems regarding the open letter. Here follows criticism of the letter while carefully considering the GNU Kind Communications Guidelines.

To those who signed the letter and/or belong to the organizations listed as supporting the letter, please consider this criticism which has been formulated carefully with a particular effort to be constructive.

The criticism below consists of two parts, one about personal attacks and the other about exaggerations. Each of these parts by itself represents a strong argument against signing the letter. Those who think signing the letter is a good idea would need to explain how that is justified regarding both points.

Criticism part 1: Personal attacks

Quote from the GNU Kind Communications Guidelines:

"Please do not take a harsh tone towards other participants, and especially don't make personal attacks against them. Go out of your way to show that you are criticizing a statement, not a person."

I think under normal circumstances we all see the wisdom in the above, in general. However, it appears that the people who signed the open letter have forgotten about the importance of avoiding personal attacks. One specific part of the letter that shows this is the following sentence: "He has shown himself to be misogynist, ableist, and transphobic, among other serious accusations of impropriety."

Note that the open letter assigns those labels (misogynist, ableist, transphobic) to the person under attack, as if those are parts of his identity. The letter does not go out of its way to show that it is criticizing statements or actions, not a person. Instead, the phrasing indicates an attack on a person, in a harsh tone. As such, the open letter does not follow the advice from the communications guidelines quoted above.

Criticism part 2: Exaggerations

Another relevant part of the GNU Kind Communications Guidelines reads as follows:

"Please respond to what people actually said, not to exaggerations of their views. Your criticism will not be constructive if it is aimed at a target other than their real views."

Again, this is hardly something that would normally be under dispute, most people would agree that it is best to avoid exaggerations when formulating criticism. Unfortunately, the open letter again seems to make an exception from this.

One specific example of exaggeration in the open letter is the phrase "his hurtful and dangerous ideology". Instead of staying with criticizing specific statements and actions, the open letter claims that the person under attack has a "hurtful and dangerous ideology". This is an exaggeration, and it is something that makes the letter difficult to respond to in a constructive way.

The accusations "misogynist, ableist, and transphobic" quoted earlier are also examples of exaggerations in the open letter.

Furthermore, the appendix of the open letter, linked to with the sentence "We have detailed several public incidents of RMS’s behavior", contains references that also amount to exaggerations and even outright misrepresentation of facts. To see a specific example of this, consider the reference number 2 in the appendix of the open letter, which points to a vice.com article. The very title of that article is a misrepresentation of the actual statements. To read details about these issues, see for example: Cancel We The Web? and On Stallman.

As the quote from the communications guidelines above says, criticism will not be constructive if it is aimed at a target other than the real views of the people criticized. It is therefore unfortunate that the open letter includes exaggerations.

My feelings

A large number of people as well as many influential organizations have together signed an open letter that constitutes a personal attack using harsh language and exaggerations. The effect this has had on me is that I feel sad. I feel uncomfortable. I feel worried for the future. I feel scared.

What to do now?

Turning again to the GNU Kind Communications Guidelines, I think the following part can help us move forward in the current difficult situation:

"If other participants complain about the way you express your ideas, please make an effort to cater to them. You can find ways to express the same points while making others more comfortable. You are more likely to persuade others if you don't arouse ire about secondary things."

This applies here: I am complaining about the way you express your ideas in the open letter, as explained above. The personal attacks and exaggerations in the open letter have made me uncomfortable. Please make an effort to cater to my concerns. If you do that, then you are more likely to persuade me about the important things you want to say.

Contact

Anyone who would like to ask questions or otherwise discuss this with me is welcome to contact me by e-mail: mail@eliasrudberg.se. I am particularly interested in hearing from those who signed the open letter -- the critique above is directed at the letter you signed, and I would like to hear how you respond to it. Please do not hesitate to write to me.