When I was in high school, there was a guy named Sam, who totally didn't fit in. He was awkward, fat, didn't dress well. And it was kind of obvious that he came from a home that wasn't working too well. His clothes were dirty. He was dirty, sometimes didn't smell right, and he did weird things.
But it was an advanced high school. You had to take a test to get in, and most people didn't. So that meant that even if Sam was weird, and he really was, he had to have something going for him.
And of course because he was odd, people treated him badly. They teased him as he walked down the hall. During recess he was always by himself except when someone was bothering him. Usually when that happened a group would show up. You could see Sam trying to make friendly eye contact with someone, and always striking out.
I was one of the popular kids. I stayed out of the crowds, but eventually decided to get involved. Me and my best friend Mark would walk with Sam to the subway and talk with him. Yes he was very weird, and he didn't treat us specially. He said all the weird shit he said to everyone to us. I don't think he got how weird it was. But we stuck with him. I don't know if it helped, or how it turned out for Sam.
Anyway, much later in life, I was treated like Sam, in the blogging community. From my point of view, I expected the newcomers to like me, because I had blazed a trail for them, and wasn't asking for anything in return. (Actually I expected them to like me because that's how things had gone all my life. I was generally popular, one of the funny kids, not the target of childish abuse.)
I couldn't believe what was happening. And then people who were probably the kind of people who taunted Sam when we were kids, showed up, and it got a lot worse. It got so bad that I withdrew from the communities I was part of. Some of which I led. The kind of ostracizing that goes on in high school yards is nothing compared to what goes on in web communities. You eventually get out of high school. But if you want to keep building on past work, which is how it goes, you can't really get away from it. Until you can't stand it anymore. And of course the bullies get what they want. It's really galling when these people work for companies like Google, Microsoft and IBM. Because it sure isn't hurting their careers to interfere with, or even shut down my work. I'm not a child, like Sam was. I understand what's going on.
A few years ago I met Richard Stallman, in Berkeley. It was arranged by my friend Sylvia Paull, who was his publicist (she might still be, I'm not sure). It was amazing, because one of his associates there (whose name I don't remember) was teasing me just like people in workgroups on the net were. I looked at him, and asked him if he seriously was going to do this, in front of Stallman. Yeah, he kept at it. That's how pervasive this culture of disrespect is. To Stallman's credit, he not only stopped it, but dug in. He wanted to understand what was at the root of this. I told him I had GPL'd my life's work. And this is the kind of treatment I was getting fairly widely. It wasn't a long conversation, but I could see in his eyes the empathy that Sam had been looking for so many years ago. People think Stallman is oblivious, but my feeling is he's a lot more aware than most people.
I seem to have escaped it, mostly. But I still see it going on for Stallman, and that makes me feel ill. I think a guy like Stallman should be heard and we should think about what he says. And if you disagree, have the self-respect to express it with dignity. And if people start getting personal about it, there should be moderators around to put a stop to it at least stand up to it. No one should stand alone when being subjected to personal attacks.
But here's what really pisses me off. When people say I'm okay because I'm not as bad as Stallman. That is such an awful way to control someone. How am I supposed to respond. Be glad you're not going to treat me like we were in high school and I was the weird guy you can get away with abusing? Or go ahead and say what I think and let you be the asshole you just said you would be if I said something that wasn't from a cookie cutter.
Sometimes, rarely, someone stands up for you -- and it's something you never forget. Once in the middle of a gang-up, Jason Kottke stepped between me and the crowd and said soemthing like this. Didn't Dave do a bunch of good stuff that we're benefitting from? Maybe we should be nicer to him? He was the only one who had the guts to do it (and he just did it once, and it didn't work). Isn't it sad that out of hundreds of people, he was the only one who got that there was a human being in the middle of the circle and didn't want to be in a position to be hurtful to that person? These were adults, not children.
That's why I was so shaken to see Kottke ridicule Stallman on his blog for, of all things, liking parrots! What the fuck. Parrots are great animals. So Stallman likes them. And if you're going to offer him a place to stay, and you have a parrot, don't worry cause Stallman will love you for it. But don't go buying a parrot just to please him, because parrots are complex beings who live long lives, and if you do that, you're going to make the parrot very unhappy. Okay, you say it's weird. And I say weird is good. People who show originality openly, without fear, are people I admire. And people I stand up for.
What Stallman does is what any good blogger would do. He says what he thinks. And if you really listen to what he says, you'll learn something. Probably the biggest thing you'll learn about is your own fear. Because there's something about Stallman that scares a lot of people. They wouldn't try to isolate him so much, if he didn't evoke their fear.