In the fallout from the news about Jeffrey Epstein and his human trafficking, Richard Stallman made some comments that were deemed offensive. Because of this there was a clamor for his hide; he was evidently compelled to resign from his Free Software Foundation and his post at MIT. This seems like bullshit to me.
I don’t know whether Stallman said what he’s accused of saying. I don’t know what context it was in. All I know is that there was some great hysteria over it, and demands that Stallman be punished. For all I know, he was just trying to stick up for a friend (Marvin Minsky) who was dead and thus unable to defend himself.
For the purposes of discussion, I’ll just concede the point and accept that what Stallman said was incorrect and offensive. This does not immediately translate into “we must silence him.” It seems to me that Stallman is free to speak his mind, and to hold unpopular opinions.
Maybe what he said was stupid. So what? Every one of us has said stupid, offensive things. In fact, I seriously doubt it is possible to make any statement that won’t offend someone. The thing is, “offensive” is subjective. What one person finds a deadly insult, another might find amusing or inconsequential. Much depends on context – who says it, and who hears it. If I use the word, “nigger,” most people would be offended. However, there are many racists who wouldn’t mind a bit. And if a Black person said it, most people would find it only mildly offensive, or not at all.
But now, if someone doesn’t happen to like what you say, you may be at risk of being canceled. Seriously, if you offend someone, you might lose your livelihood, your social standing, your life as you had known it. All for expressing an unpopular opinion.
One problem with canceling is that it is indiscriminate. Stallman is a programmer. His ignorant or offensive comments do not mean he’s a bad programmer; nor should it mean that he is prevented from programming. It doesn’t mean he’s any less capable of heading the Free Software Foundation. It just means he said something that some people found objectionable.
And in fact, it doesn’t even mean he’s a bad person. He might simply be uninformed. He might have misunderstood the situation. Chances are good that he’s not some demonic pervert who supports what Jeffrey Epstein did.
But none of this matters. Stallman said something offensive, and people needed his blood. What bullshit.