The fall of computer scientist Richard Stallman, forced to resign his position at MIT because of his apologetics for rape and sexual abuse is now widely known. But Steven Levy says that the entire nerd culture that these people were steeped in that found their eccentricities amusing is also one that made them oblivious from seeing that their views on so many matters were utterly appalling.
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 [Marvin] 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.
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.
It used to be the case that casual sexist speech and bad behavior used to be excused on the grounds of age, that these older guys had not kept up with the times and did not really know that the norms had changed. That excuse does not fly anymore. The highly publicized flagging of bad behavior has reached a stage where ignorance is no longer an excuse.