On Sperging Out
The Boy Who Cried Leopard
Recently there's been a new dust up about Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation. For those of you just tuning in: an open letter demands that the entire board of the Free-as-in-speech Software Foundation resign, because of past statements and opinions by the radical inventor of free-as-in-speech software.
It's pushed on social media, by various People of Clout. People start sharing their own stories which are somehow meant to prove the power grab is justified because Stallman is horrible. There's also a counter letter, which I and many others have signed. It's all very productive.
The whole situation is remarkable to me. The undersigned claim to detest Stallman, for being an uncompromising libertarian who holds unsavory and immoral views—or at least a caricature of them. Yet they seem incredibly invested in taking over an organization he founded to explicitly defend his personal ideals. You'd think people who are so into guilt by association would prefer to not be associated with any of it.
It's even more remarkable when you notice the backdrop for the previous dust up involving Stallman: MIT and Jeffrey Epstein. Cos what it looked like to me was that a bunch of people suddenly all had their hands in a very dubious funding cookie jar. At the same time, they decided it was very important to use someone as a scapegoat to pin evil opinions on about sex and consent. You gotta wonder.
What I really want to talk about though is a pattern of behavior that keeps recurring.
Consider this story.
T. Tweeter describes the pain of being sat next to Stallman on a grounded plane for 90 minutes. Stallman complains to the flight attendant and becomes irate. Eventually the narrator "takes one for the team" by striking up a conversation with him, lest the entire flight is cancelled, after ignoring him for 45 minutes. Very empathetic. Stallman sees this as an opportunity to criticize his choice of headphones, that they are a symbol of digital oppression.
The intended take-away, I assume, is that Stallman is immature and lacks the social graces to deal with a difficult situation. He takes out his stress on the people around him, who can't do anything about it, making it worse for everyone. He is single-mindedly focused on his own interests.
That doesn't sound very pleasant.
Though as someone on the spectrum, I can read this situation quite differently.
Planes are uncomfortable for anyone: you are stuck in a tin can, in an uncomfortable seat, next to people you can't get away from. For autists, this is extra bad: they often have difficulty tuning out their environment. This can be experienced as an actual assault of painful sounds, smells and so on. Spending several hours on a plane is Nightmare mode for some of us, and noise-cancelling can be a life saver.
The fact that the plane was grounded is also extremely pertinent: autism is often paired with OCD, and a grounded plane represents a schedule that was made but then disrupted. An expectation was set of orderly events, and then this expectation was violated, with no definite end in sight. This can be unbearable for those with a certain predisposition.
The combination of the two is extra bad, because the way autists generally deal with stressful situations is through planning and preparation: they anticipate the various obstacles and harms they might encounter, and preventatively try to mitigate them. If things go wrong despite all this, because of the actions of others, this can register as negligent and rude. The person on the spectrum is trying their best to avoid harm, to avoid foreseeable problems that will result in pain, but their efforts are in vain or actively frustrated.
Worse, if they complain, they will be seen as arrogant and entitled, because what was plainly obvious to them is rarely understood by others. It puts them in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation. Annoy people by pointing out their mistakes, or stay silent and be forced to live painfully through their slow, unfolding consequences. Ripping off the band-aid is sometimes necessary, and can have remarkable results.
I'm not defending Stallman's behavior, I'm just explaining what it likely looked like from the other side. The part about the headphones is also pertinent, because to someone like Stallman, being able to talk about his interests is, by definition, a good time. It comes from an inability to understand that others have fundamentally different priorities of what is enjoyable. He sincerely believes the person is making a bad choice because he foresees that some technological limitation will eventually deny them a fundamental expressive right.
What is most remarkable is that Stallman's detractors consider themselves exquisitely empathetic. Yet they seem unable to grasp this from his perspective, even if they find it unreasonable. They assume he is being willfully unbearable in a bearable situation, rather than simply having an unbearable experience, as valid or invalid as theirs.
The Izakaya Clown Car
I have my own story that hits similar notes. At a local conference, I booked a dinner reservation for a group. Because of an error by the restaurant, it almost fell through, but we managed to sort it all out with a different location. It was all very chaotic.
My invitation was very clear: there are no extra seats available. The guest list was locked in. This was an extremely popular place. So you can imagine how I felt when, day of, more people show up than agreed.
"Well, there's a few people here with their spouse... we couldn't just tell them not to come."
Here's how my sperg brain answered that:
"Yes you can. In fact, those are exactly the people who can go off have dinner on their own without being alone."
Most people don't want to be the one to say "no, you can't come," even if there is a perfectly good reason for it. I am not that guy.
You see, I know conferences. I know the pattern of wandering in the vicinity of the event as part of a hungry group. The chances of finding dinner any time soon shrink with every new person who tags along. This is the exact thing my dinner plans were meant to avoid. Sorry, that's just how it is. Don't blame me for knowing you better than you do. Bystander group dynamics are predictable and tedious.
We ended up squished around too small a table, with visibly exasperated staff, in a place that until then I had been a regular and welcomed customer at. At a location that normally didn't even do reservations but had been forced to accept out of a Japanese sense of franchise honor. And me a nervous wreck for about the first half of it, at least until the sake kicked in.
I'm sure some thought I was the asshole, too spergy to just "have a good time". This is the problem with people: if the assholishness is sufficiently distributed, everyone can claim individually it's not a big deal, even when all the crap flows downhill towards one person. Out of sight, out of mind.
That dinner ended up getting paid for with a Google credit card, btw. I suspect there's a lesson about valley privilege in there. Just saying.
Rebase Richard Stallman
Anyway so, when faced with a stressful and unexpected situation, Stallman freaks out.
Now let's look at the Medium post Remove Richard Stallman from the last dust up:
I’m writing this because I’m too angry to work.
I’m writing this because at 11AM on Wednesday, September 11th 2019, my friend sent me an email that was sent to an MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) mailing list.
This email came from Richard Stallman, a prominent computer scientist.
A single email sent you into a rage, you say?
I was shocked. I continued talking to my friend, a female graduate student in CSAIL, about everything, trying to get the full email thread (I wasn’t on the mailing list). I even started emailing reporters — local and national, news sites, newspapers, radio stations. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. During my 45-minute drive home, when I normally listen to podcasts or music, I just sat in complete silence.
And then you couldn't stop talking about it. You dumped it all on a friend and turned them into your personal backchannel? You reached out to multiple reporters? Your normal routine was completely thrown off?
So I told my friends that I would just write a story myself. I’d planned to do it after work today; instead, because I can’t possibly focus, I’m working on it now.
The problems are so obvious.
Why do we wait until it becomes bad and public and unbearable and people like me have to write posts like this?
Why do we ponder the low enrollment of female and minority graduate students at MIT with one hand and endorse shitty men in science with the other? Not only endorse them — we invite them to our campus where they will brush shoulders with those same female and minority students.
There's a thing that's extremely obvious to her, that she finds unbearable. She is very frustrated that others aren't automatically on board. She hates the idea of being around them and even hints that it is unpleasant to touch them.
She's doing the exact same thing Stallman was on the plane. What's more, she is using all the autistic registers to describe her discomfort: bottled up emotions, OCD, disruption of routine, sensory discomfort, and so on.
It's also similar to my story of being squished around a restaurant table. The big difference is: nobody is forcing her to do anything. This is all just about an email somebody forwarded to her, from a list she's not even on.
What's really, really funny is the next part:
There is nothing I have seen a man in tech do that a woman could not. What’s more, the woman would probably be less egotistical and more team-oriented about it.
Like freaking out in public but pretending you're doing it for the children. Did you know that they say that autism tends to manifest differently in women than in men? And that men tend to have a systems-focus while women tend to have a people-focus? That female autists tend to be more verbally fluent and hence often go unnoticed for years? You say you are an MIT robotics engineer with a fondness for writing?
There is nothing I have seen a woman in tech do that a man could not. What’s more, the man would probably be less egotistical and more team-oriented about it.
Doesn't sound so pleasant anymore, does it? This is the "Women are Wonderful" effect in the wild: making patently sexist statements is okay if they make women sound good.
There is no single person that is so deserving of praise their comments deprecating others should be allowed to slide. Particularly when those comments are excuses about rape, assault, and child sex trafficking.
Notice that the person who openly denigrated "shitty men in science" in bulk earlier claims it is wholly unacceptable to deprecate others, while misrepresenting them as endorsing horrific crimes wholesale.
Let the sperg who is a buddha cast the first stone.
Dogs and Cats
It's easy to conclude the above represents enormous, total, widespread hypocrisy. But there's a subtle distinction that threatens to get lost.
Stallman was unexpectedly stuck on a plane. I was unexpectedly forced to choose between going hungry or having an extremely uncomfortable dinner.
But nobody was forced to listen to Stallman having a discussion on a private mailing list.
Why do we wait until it becomes bad and public and unbearable and people like me have to write posts like this?
If anyone is being willfully unbearable, it is people who pretend this distinction does not matter. That every knee must bend regardless of who and when and where.
I've thought a lot about what exactly it is that social media is and does. Why it is seemingly so pernicious.
One conclusion is that it is a perfect environment for social predators, especially those with cluster B disorders such as narcissism and borderline. The platforms reward attention-seeking, and thrive on gossip and hearsay. Users trade publicly in reputation rather than facts. The lack of logic in seizing control of an organization when you detest its founders' ideas makes this clear: it's not about the principles, but about grabbing power and funding.
Social media also encourages these behaviors even for those not predisposed to it, simply through monkey-see-monkey-do. The notion of activists as "social script kiddies" is particularly relevant here: people might not realize it, but they are often acting out thinly disguised scripts for emotional abuse, even cult indoctrination. Just fill in the blanks and let it rip. Worse is that it also forces opponents to adopt a systematic way of countering it: zero tolerance for such shenanigans anywhere, classement verticale, into the trash it goes.
But I think there's something else too, and it ties back to one of the oldest stories in the book: The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
The villagers in the story are misled to believe there is an imminent threat. This captures their attention, sending them on a pointless wolf hunt. This happens so often, they conclude there is no danger. When a wolf finally does show up, they don't believe it, and people get eaten.
Social media does something similar, because it creates a global village. But it's not quite the same.
Everyone who subscribes to it is constantly being yelled at that there are wolves everywhere. Many take it seriously, think about it, and join an Anti-Wolf Coalition. Some even go out and hunt. But usually there aren't any real wolves in their neighborhood. So they spend their energy obsessing for no reason. People become afraid to go out at night, worried they might get eaten. Eventually even ordinary accidents are interpreted as wolf attacks. Owning a dog stops being popular, especially if you have children.
Then one day, a leopard shows up. A boy spots the creature at night, but it is difficult to see, so when he describes it, it sounds just like a cat. "Cats are harmless!" the villagers say. "They're nothing like wolves!"
And the leopard ate very well.