Quick hit: Richard Stallman comments on “Emacs virgins” incident

Since the “EMACS virgins” joke incident and resulting discussion was a major point in this year’s discussions about women in Free/Libre/Open Source Software (it became major, I think, mostly due to timing; since it was followed fairly quickly by Skud’s separately planned Standing Out in the Crowd keynote at OSCON), there are probably a bunch of people interested in seeing Richard Stallman’s statement, and perhaps in discussing it. Here’s your thread.

Stallman’s statement was sent to two email lists, the GNOME Foundation list and the GNOME Women list, and is publicly archived. It’s four paragraphs long, and can be found at For avoidance of misunderstandings.

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31 thoughts on “Quick hit: Richard Stallman comments on “Emacs virgins” incident

  1. D.

    “Inexperienced user” conveys the same meaning. Granted, it may have too many syllables for Mr. Stallman’s taste, and not nearly enough potential for poor taste, but adults can deal with that.

  2. Brenda

    he has used a different turn of phrase each time he’s done this routine… it’s the version that speaks of an obligation to remove someone else’s virginity from them, that is the bit that needs to not be repeated by RMS again.
    It could also use some background info – i was not aware of this cult he is attempting to mock.

    1. Mary Post author

      The Cult of the Virgin Mary, I assume. I am very unexpert, but its basic features (as attributed by critics, particularly non-Roman Catholic Christians) seems to be veneration of Mary mother of Jesus in a way that resembles worship of goddess figures. There is a doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity in Roman Catholicism and some Orthodox churches also.

      There was a long thread in mjg59’s journal about how accurate RMS’s parody is in representing Catholic teachings about virginity.

  3. Carla Schroder

    I adore RMS and what he has done for Free Software and freedom in general. Still, like all humans, he has his flaws, and clinging to this Virgin Emacs schtick is a mistake. Nobody making a fuss about it for years doesn’t make it any better, just like so many dumb things in FOSS it seems it’s only us uppity girls who are brave enough to raise objections. There have been years of booth babes and commercial female companions at tech shows, and years of stupid sexual material and exclusionary language and attitudes in speeches and presentations, and years of other unprofessional, offputting behaviors. A long tradition of men being too chicken or too oblivious to speak up doesn’t make it all OK.

    If RMS, or anyone else, is serious about things like “women…deserve freedom in using computers, just as men do” then they need to wise up and at the very least learn how to not be repelling to women who want to be part of FOSS. Is refraining from bad jokes such a burden? What’s more important, reaching people or stubbornly defending the sacred right to torpedo your own message?

  4. Melissa

    At the core, I personally cannot reconcile my thinking to grasp how erotic references or some form of disdain for the cultures or characteristics of others are somehow required for jokes.

    I mean, if you cannot make a joke in a professional setting without relying on the presence of dirty thoughts or insults within it to make people laugh, then the joke probably was not funny to begin with. Seriously.

  5. James Vasile

    Let’s take a step back and try not to lump RMS in with purveyors of booth babes and the like. He would never endorse that sort of thing. RMS made a clumsy joke and had an undesired effect. He apologized and took steps to not repeat the offense in the future. I think that makes him one of the more reasonable people in this debate.

    Maybe he could have gone further in both apology and future steps, but I’m giving him a passing grade, even if I wouldn’t give him an A+.

    Disclaimer: I am a long-time Emacs zealot. ;)

    1. Mary Post author

      I think that makes him one of the more reasonable people in this debate.

      I approved this comment, but a couple of things:
      1. his post does not seem to me to be an apology, in actual fact (which is why I used “Stallman comments…” rather than “Stallman apologises…” in the title). He speaks of the ‘misunderstanding’ as something that happened around him, not something that he contributed to in any fashion.
      2. the section of your comment I quoted above this sounds something like the “tone argument“, although ‘reasonable’ is ambiguous between ‘reasonable in tone’ and ‘I agree with his stated position’.

      1. Melissa

        I’m with Mary on this.

        “People just don’t understand me, but I’ve changed anyway!” is really not an apology no matter how you frame it. We do appreciate that RMS has finally sort of acknowledged that people were unhappy, but that? Not an apology. Giving it a “passing grade” as such would irresponsibly set some form of precedence of non-apology worshipping.

        As for “one of the more reasonable people in this debate”… as compared to whom, pray tell? That really sounds to me to be awfully like an accusation.

        1. Chris

          Serious question: do you think an apology is necessary? I tend to think that “I don’t actually think what it sounded like I think about women, and so I’m not going to make that joke again” is sufficient, but I’m curious how we should work out whether an apology is called for.

      2. Eivind Kjørstad

        I agree, it’s not an apology. He doesn’t even say that he regrets the previous wording.

        But he -does- implicitly acknowledge that the wording was poor, contributing to the misunderstanding, thus he’s changed the wording. There’d be no reason to change the joke, if it was perfectly fine as it was.

        Yeah, he could’ve acknowledged that explicitly, I’d have prefered that.

        That said, he -has- experienced a lot of very strongly worded attacks, there is absolutely no reason to not believe Stallman: his conduct over the last several decades is entirely consistent with his claim that for him, freedom is the issue, and the gender of the computer-user is irrelevant.

        1. koipond

          As I mentioned below, his intent is irrelevant. The joke is inherently sexist since “taking someone’s virginity” is usually reserved for someone (usually male) taking it from a woman. The ‘joke’ needs to go, period. It’s actually an impediment to the ‘freedom’ that he’s aiming for because it turns people away from what he’s saying.

        2. Skud

          Eivind, can you point us at some of these “strongly worded attacks”? I imagine they would have to be much stronger than “That thing you said was sexist, perhaps you should apologise” (i.e. what was in Lefty’s original email to RMS) to warrant being described as such, but I can’t think of any I’ve seen.

          The list of blog responses at http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/EMACS_virgins_joke may give you a starting point. Feel free to compare to the comments made by RMS’s supporters, also linked in that page, or the commentary on mdz’s blog. Some of the anti-feminist statements there include “grow some balls”, “bitch, STFU”, and “go back to sucking $person’s cock”, so I guess you must be thinking of “strongly worded [feminist] attacks” at least of that order, huh?

          I’ll wait.

  6. Skud

    You know what occurred to me earlier today? Outside of RMS’s St Ignutius schtick, I don’t recall having encountered much religious zealotry wrt text editors since, oh… the turn of the century or so? I was thinking about it and wondering whether it was largely an artifact of shared Unix servers like those that were common in the 80s and 90s. I remember people complaining about EMACS using so much memory (“Eight Megs And Constantly Swapping”, ha ha, megs) and sysadmins not wanting to install it because of the system resources it chewed up. Meanwhile, vim has become a pretty damn serious power-editor, not at all like the vi of commercial unix systems a decade ago, and it doesn’t seem like there’s such a “Here’s a nickel, kid” opportunity any more. Or if there is, it’s aimed at people who use nano.

  7. koipond

    Any jokes that deal with virginity, no matter how “gender neutral” the person making them tries to be will still fail because that’s not how it’s going to be perceived. When people speak of virginity, they really mean that they’re talking of a woman’s virginity.

    Keeping the joke is full of fail.

    1. FoolishOwl

      I have to disagree a bit. It’s pretty frequent that young men are mocked for being virgins. The valence is different — it translates to, “you are a contemptible loser,” instead of “you are an unclaimed commodity,” but it’s still clearly a sexualized insult. Stallman’s revised joke is no improvement.

  8. Eivind Kjørstad

    I didn’t intent to say that the attacks on Stallman have been worse than the stupidest comments one can find from anti-feminists and trolls.

    What I meant is, he’s had to endure a LOT of critique, some of it fairly harsh, for something which he did which was unwise, and poorly worded, but which nevertheless (so he claims, and I don’t see any reason whatsoever to doubt him), wasn’t intended to come out that way. He’s also acknowledged that, and said he won’t repeat the joke in this form.

    How much more do you need ? At what point does it become counterproductive to keep attacking someone who is really on your side, and who already said a) that he wants women to enjoy rights equal to those of men, and b) that he doesn’t want to be understood differently, so he’s changing the joke.

    Yes, it’s no apology. I nevertheless think it’s reasonable. “What I said caused misunderstandings, I won’t say it again” isn’t -that- far away from “I regret that I said that.”, is the difference worth it ?

    1. tigtog

      But changing “the language of the joke” so that “the virgin” can be perceived as either male or female isn’t really addressing the core of the problem. The core of the problem is sexualising inexperienced users at all, because in our society women are the sex class, and as soon as you bring sexual imagery into the equation it marginalises women by zeroing the attention of male attendees onto the women’s sexual attributes instead of their intellectual attributes and potential contributions.

      Language that makes women feel Othered makes them feel unwelcome. Making women feel unwelcome is not the way to encourage more women into the field, and insisting on clinging to this language simply raises the question of whether making women genuinely welcome is really on the agenda at all.

    2. koipond

      See Eivind, what that does is put the blame not on the person who made the ‘joke’ but the people who ‘misunderstood’ it. Going over RMS’s commentary where it fails is right at the beginning.

      “Some of the people in the audience in my speech in the Gran Canaria
      Desktop Summit thought that my joke about the Virgin of Emacs was
      intended to make some kind of statement about women.”

      Regardless of his intent, it was a ‘joke’ about women. You can’t reference things like virginity and the said taking of it without having to deal with the whole idea of virginity and the ideas of ownership that are associated with it.

      As for:

      Yes, it’s no apology. I nevertheless think it’s reasonable. “What I said caused misunderstandings, I won’t say it again” isn’t -that- far away from “I regret that I said that.”, is the difference worth it ?

      He didn’t say, “I won’t say it again.” He said, “I’ve modified it so that it’s both genders” but that still runs into the problems with connotation that occur with the word virgin as mentioned above.

      Also as Skud mentioned above, which will need repeating again, if you can show that “harsh criticism” of saying “hey, you should probably apologize for it” is equal to the backlash aimed at those who brought it up then you can use that comparaison. Last time I checked, which was right now, the words “unwise,” or “poorly worded” weren’t used by those who tried to silence people who pointed this out.

      I’ll get a coffee. No rush.

      1. Eivind

        It was, as you say, a sexist joke. And thus, it’d be better to not use it. RMS has changed the joke as a consequence, i.e. he -agrees- that it’s better not to use that joke in the form it was in.

        It’s 4 months ago. And the man has acknowledged that the joke, in the form it was in, was unfortunate.

        It’s fairly ridicolous of you to claim that I “try to silence” anyone, I’m assuming you’re refering to me, since I used those precise words.

        All I’m saying is: It was a bad joke. RMS has taken a lot criticism for it. (you might say well-deserved, but that doesnt’ change it) And he’s in essence backed down.

        I’m suggesting at this point, this issue might not be such a big deal. But by all means, if you disagree, if you DO think it’s worth it: go right ahead discuss this issue into the ground, for the next *decade* if you think that’ll actually acomplish anything worthwhile. I don’t. I don’t even think riding this issue around any more is helpful for furthering the goal of a gender-neutral Free Software culture, where everyone is equally welcome, regardless of sex and other irrelevancies.

        I personally don’t much see the point of sexualized jokes in a setting such as this at all, so I agree with you that the entire “virgin” thing is stupid, be it a gender-neutral virgin or not. There’s other problems with such jokes than just being insulting to females, afterall. They can also deter people who have a different culture or religion, and frankly, I find it unprofessional. That’s however distinct from being sexist.

        1. tigtog

          I’m suggesting at this point, this issue might not be such a big deal. But by all means, if you disagree, if you DO think it’s worth it: go right ahead discuss this issue into the ground, for the next *decade* if you think that’ll actually acomplish anything worthwhile. I don’t.

          Who exactly is discussing this issue into the ground? Blogs such as this are making the occasional update post on one particular example that illustrates a broader issue of interest (sexism in geek culture), and the people who are discussing it into the ground are the people reacting defensively to those update posts, from where I’m sitting.

          The important issue here is sexism in geek culture. Stallman’s “joke” is just one example of it. It’s used to illustrate the larger issue. His joke not the major perpetrator of geek-sexism by a long shot, but it’s at the very least an enabler. It’s people who want to focus only on the particular semantics of Stallman’s joke and later comment/”explanation”, as if it’s an isolated phenomenon instead of a systemic trope, that are blocking forward progress on the larger issue.

  9. David Glasser

    Even if what RMS sent was an adequate apology for his sexist remarks, it still seems to miss the point. If I were choosing speakers for a tech conference, I wouldn’t want somebody who makes jokes that alienate women and their friends, and so maybe maybe maybe “ok, I’ll try to make this joke less specifically about women” would help… but I also wouldn’t want somebody who is mocking Catholicism in a keynote at a tech conference!

    1. Asad

      Yep. There’s just no need to go there. I’ve seen the shtick and I admit it’s funny and all, but in the end it probably detracts more from what is otherwise a very effective message than it brings.

      1. Leigh Honeywell

        While you may “admit” that it’s funny, many other folks have “admitted” that it’s creepy and inappropriate as well as quite unfunny :p

        1. Asad

          I was referring to the Saint whatever thing he does, re the Catholicism, where he wears the the hard drive platter on his head.

        2. Asad

          Uhm, I’m assuming we’re talking about the shtick sans the Emacs Virgin comment? I saw it once, don’t remember the Emacs virgins bit (I agree that that’s creepy), but frankly I think that wearing a hard drive platter on your head is funny, if not a great way for make people take you or your message seriously.

          But, YMMV. I may simply have a more juvenile sense of humour.

    2. Asad

      Context: I was responding to David Glasser’s “even if it were adequate apology for his sexist remarks…”

  10. Brenda

    so — “those who haven’t used emacs are like male virgins and you you have duty to take their virginity from them”….. ??

    Changing the “joke” to be male, or both genders doesn’t save it…

  11. Mary Post author


    Serious question: do you think an apology is necessary?

    My take on apologies is that you make one when:
    1. something undesirable occurred
    2. your voluntary actions contributed to it, even if unknowingly
    3. you wish to make amends

    So not making one implies to me that you disagree with either one of those three things, or you disagree with my whole argument here. I can’t say for sure what RMS’s opinion is obviously, but it seems to me that he is accepting #1 but denying #2 by use of the word “misunderstanding”, which seems to locate all of the contributions to the event on the actions of those who did not correctly understand him. (An alternative might be, for example, saying that that wasn’t his intended meaning, but that it was a reasonable interpretation that he should have anticipated and avoided, or something like that.)

    I don’t know about ‘necessary’: I think that call has to be made by the person themselves. We can ask for apologies, we can say that something undesirable happened and that someone contributed to it. If it had been me, I would make one in this case though.

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