If one wishes to promote the life of language, one must promote the life of the community---a discipline many times more trying, difficult, and long than that of linguistics, but having at least the virtue of hopefulness. It escapes the despair always implicit in specializations: the cultivation of discrete parts without respect or responsibility for the whole.Programmers, of all people, ought to understand the power of language. The desktop, laptop or mobile computer you are using to read this blog post would be useless without software, which -- uniquely among the various types of things engineers build -- is constructed solely from language. The magical thing about programming, the thing that drew me to it 18 years ago, is that it turns ideas into reality.
-- Wendell Berry, "Standing By Words"
Yet a lot of programmers seem to have a selective lack of understanding of how ideas, as expressed through language (particularly gendered language), construct reality. I find that somewhat curious, given how much time programmers can spend arguing over whether a certain programming language should use a semicolon or a comma for a particular language construct.
When the news about the libuv gendered pronouns patch dispute broke last week, I was going to write a blog post about it. It was going to be a lengthy one, as is my style. But because reasons, I kept putting off actually writing that post. I also avoided reading others' posts about it, because I had some specific things in mind to say and I didn't want to confuse myself.
Today, though, I read Bryan Cantrill's post "The Power of a Pronoun". Bryan is the VP of Engineering at Joyent, the company that sponsors libuv. As Bryan points out, Ben Noordhuis -- the libuv contributor who reverted the patch -- was a volunteer, and thus can't be fired. (At least not straightforwardly.) And, in fact, Ben ended up leaving the project voluntarily after all of this went down. But, Bryan says
In this post, Bryan Cantrill shows he understands something that's woven into the fabric of daily life for many of us: the little things matter, and as I've written before, the little offenses lay the groundwork for the big ones. (Thanks to Valerie Aurora and Leigh Honeywell for their insights in the posts that my own blog posts just elaborate on.) Assuming that Bryan's attitude displayed here is consistent and is part of the culture at Joyent, that means Joyent is a company I would be happy to work at someday.
But while Isaac is a Joyent employee, Ben is not—and if he had been, he wouldn't be as of this morning: to reject a pull request that eliminates a gendered pronoun on the principle that pronouns should in fact be gendered would constitute a fireable offense for me and for Joyent. On the one hand, it seems ridiculous (absurd, perhaps) to fire someone over a pronoun -- but to characterize it that way would be a gross oversimplification: it's not the use of the gendered pronoun that's at issue (that's just sloppy), but rather the insistence that pronouns should in fact be gendered. To me, that insistence can only come from one place: that gender—specifically, masculinity—is inextricably linked to software, and that's not an attitude that Joyent tolerates. This isn't merely a legalistic concern (though that too, certainly), but also a technical one: we believe that empathy is a core engineering value—and that an engineer that has so little empathy as to not understand why the use of gendered pronouns is a concern almost certainly makes poor technical decisions as well.
Contrast this with my most recent former employer, Mozilla. While there are many individuals at Mozilla I could name who share a commitment to inclusion, I'm sorry to say that the company as a whole lacks any such commitment -- and I mean a commitment that is expressed through actions and not just aspirations. I wrote about one such example at great length. But a more recent one happened after I told one of the other members of the Rust team that I was considering leaving Mozilla.
I asked this person (who will remain nameless, since it isn't my intent here to single out individuals or to invite accusations that I'm starting a witch hunt, rallying a pitchfork-wielding feminist mob, or any of the hyperbolic cliches that people terrified of losing privilege use to shame people like me into silence) if there was anything he thought I should know before making up my mind over whether to accept my offer from another company. We spent some time first talking about issues that were (at least superficially) unrelated to the topic of this post. But then he told me that he thought I should know that other people on the team were "uncomfortable" with my "offputting" views about gender. He said that everybody on the team agreed with my views on feminism, it was just that some of them disagreed with how I expressed them. (This is a common derailing tactic.) I can't know whether he was speaking only for himself or whether several other people on the team truly do agree with him, since he didn't name any of the other people who he was citing to back up this statement. In any case, the sole concrete example that my now-former colleague gave of just what was "off-putting" about my views was that several times, I had asked people on the #rust IRC channel not to use "guys" to refer to the members of the channel collectively (as in, "Hey, guys, I have a question..."), since there are people of various genders who spend time on the IRC channel. He said that he felt this was hurting the community because it made people "uncomfortable".
This, by the way, happened not long after Lindsey Kuper, a long-time Rust contributor, wrote about her experience with harassment on #rust, as well as another woman who is a regular in #rust reported that she had received a sexual advance via private /msg from someone who was, presumably, scrolling through the list of users in #rust and looking for the first female-coded name to target for harassment. And so it was clear to me that when my former colleague said he was worried that asking people to use inclusive language would make them "uncomfortable", he was not speaking out of concern for the comfort of either Lindsey, or the woman who another #rust member hit on via private message, or for any other women who contribute to Rust, or for any women who might want to. Rather, he was speaking out of concern for the comfort of people who have male privilege and are so very sensitive about it that a request to think about how other people feel about the language they use would affect their desire to use a programming language.
On the one hand, Mozilla's stated mission is to "keep the Internet alive and accessible, so people worldwide can be informed contributors and creators of the Web". On the other, if we look at actions and not at aspirations, Mozilla's enforcement -- and lack of enforcement -- regarding appropriate professional conduct seems tailor-made for protecting wealth and privilege, for ensuring that even if anyone can contribute to the Web, a privileged few (those who are mostly white, mostly North American and Western European, mostly male, and mostly heterosexual) will retain control over it. I left. I couldn't manage the cognitive dissonance anymore.
In the world of open-source companies, are more of them like Joyent -- asserting empathy as a core value -- or are more of them like Mozilla -- too concerned with privileged programmers' comfort to carry out justice? (Note that if you're too afraid to ask for non-sexist conduct because of who you are afraid you'll alienate, you are implicitly saying that you believe your project cannot survive without the contributions of sexist and willfully ignorant men.) I really don't know the answer. But I do know that empathy won't spread by itself, and that social change takes sustained and diligent effort.
So, for a third time: it's my 33rd birthday in twelve days. If you have more than $1 to spare, you can make it a good one by donating to the Ada Initiative. I already wrote about why I think TAI has had an effect and will continue to have one -- with your support. You can join the ranks of those who have donated so far if you just let me know!
See a more recent post for the list of awesome folks who have donated so far.