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Glibc 'abortion joke' diff tiff leaves Richard Stallman miffed

FSF firebrand rails against purged abort() docs 'satire'

Late last month, open-source contributor Raymond Nicholson proposed a change to the manual for glibc, the GNU implementation of the C programming language's standard library, to remove "the abortion joke," which accompanied the explanation of libc's abort() function.

Nicholson said: "The joke does not provide any useful information about the abort() function so removing it will not hinder use of glibc."

The joke, which has been around since the 1990s and is referred to as a censorship joke by those supporting its inclusion, reads as follows:

25.7.4 Aborting a Program


Future Change Warning: Proposed Federal censorship regulations may prohibit us from giving you information about the possibility of calling this function. We would be required to say that this is not an acceptable way of terminating a program.

Hold your laughter until the end.

On April 30, the proposed change was made, removing the passage from the documentation.

That didn't sit well with a number of people involved in the glibc project, including the joke's author, none other than Free Software Foundation president and firebrand Richard Stallman, who argued that the removal of the joke qualified as censorship. Ironic.

"The point of this joke is even more important now than it was when I first wrote it," Stallman wrote in a note posted to project mailing list, in reference to today's political climate. "Please do not remove it. GNU is not a purely technical project, so the fact that this is not strictly and grimly technical is not a reason to remove this."

Objections followed – all but one from men if the names of those participating in the debate can be taken as a proxy for gender identity – expressing concern about the potential offensiveness of the words.

The disagreement echoes other disputes that have erupted in open-source projects over appropriate behavior and perceived intolerance, such as the recent resignation of LLVM contributor Rafael Avila de Espindola over his unwillingness to accept code of conduct rules and race-limited internships.

Carlos O'Donnell, a senior software engineer at Red Hat, suggested that trying to wring humor out of abortion "could be a trigger for certain individuals causing them to relive a traumatic memory. I cannot condone that we add triggers like these to a technical manual, particularly when individuals would not expect such jokes in the manual."

O'Donnell recommended avoiding jokes altogether, a position supported by many of those weighing in on the issue. Among those voicing opinions, a majority appears to favor removal.

Stallman, however, pulled rank and insisted that the joke was both funny and appropriate and that it should remain.

"I exercise my authority over glibc very rarely – and when I have done so, I have talked with the official maintainers," he explained. "So rarely that some of you thought that you are entirely autonomous. But that is not the case. On this particular question, I made a decision long ago and stated it where all of you could see it."

On Monday, the joke was restored by project contributor Alexandre Oliva, having taken Stallman's demand as approval to do so.

Other project contributors chided Oliva for failing to follow the project's consensus-based process, which only exists until Stallman throws an exception. ®

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