In the aftermath of the Bubba Wallace noose outrage, where it turned out that the “noose” was there as a pull for the garage door, had been there for years before Bubba Wallace, who supported Nascar’s decision to ban the confederate battle flag from Nascar, was assigned to the garage, and reflected nothing about lynching. It was a good thing, that no one hung a noose in Bubba Wallace’s garage as a racist threat. But it was, as Wallace said afterward, still “a straight-up noose.”
In a world where the only point of reference is slavery and racism, a noose means lynching, and lynching means that horrific thing done to black people. Hanging had long been a means of execution having nothing to do with black people. Gallows have existed for hundreds of years before the advent of African slavery and continued after the emancipation. A noose can be about lynching black people, but neither the knot nor word is inherently about lynching black people.
In a fit of acquiescence, the word “master” was eliminated from the title of people charged with managing campus dorms because it was the same word used to describe slaveowners. No one questioned that its derivation was entirely separate, but that it was the same word, the same sound, and in the minds of some, it was enough to create trauma. A word unrelated to slavery was not only reinvented to be close enough to slavery, but fell into that sophist argument that words are violence because “words hurt,” such that its eradication became necessary.
This isn’t to argue that words don’t “hurt.” They can. If a black person is called the N-word, it will hurt. But does the word “housemaster” hurt? Some will insist it does, but they’re lying. You can’t prove hurt, so they can claim it knowing their lie can’t be proven, but their cries of pain demonstrates the sensitivity toward those to whom the current fashion demands sensitivity.
Even those who admit it’s silly contend that changing the word does no one serious harm. What’s the big deal about getting rid of a word like “housemaster” that might offend someone? Can’t we just show kindness to others when it comes at no price? This was a powerful argument, as few cared all that much about the name and were happy enough to go along, even if it was more reflective of the pathological sensitivity of the unduly simplistic than anything else.
But in the back of their heads, programmers saw that the slippery slope ran right across their code.
Unlike other U.S. businesses, the tech industry has a “master” and “slave” problem.
That’s what many tech companies call software components — “master” and “slave” is written into the computer code — wherein one process controls another. Not “controller” and “follower,” say, or “manager” and “worker.” Should an African American software developer be required to write code wherein a master process commands slaves?
It’s not that there aren’t other words that could have been used, that convey the same or similar meaning. It’s that “master” and “slave” were the words chosen. They were perfectly fine words at the time. They had nothing to do with race. They were just words. And they are the words that permeate computer programming.
The concept didn’t just arise. Los Angeles, where concern with empty symbolism was born, was on this years before.
Concern about the tech industry’s use of master/slave terminology has been simmering for years. In 2003, Los Angeles County asked vendors to stop using it. Some companies made changes; others did not. So why shouldn’t the focus stay on the companies that refuse?
The tech industry was not sufficiently obsessed by aligning everything to race at the time to comply, although some felt the pain that others did not.
Python, the de facto language for artificial intelligence and machine learning, moved to eliminate the language in 2018. Not without controversy. Open-source software groups often make decisions quasi-democratically. In late 2018, the founder of Python had to intervene because some developers supported continuing to use master/slave terminology. Others wanted to jettison “slave” but debated the acceptability of “master.”
Of course, they were aware that “master” had a relationship to slavery as well as a meaning completely unrelated to slavery. The question, as Humpty Dumpty might inquire, is who is “master”?
For that reason, the tech industry needs to act collectively to abandon master/slave terminology. If enough major players agree to make the move, outliers would need to follow suit or risk limiting their products’ compatibility with the industry standard.
If this happened, and the industry as a whole chose to employ different nomenclature, it would eliminate the words that some will find, or at least claim to find, offensive, without risking any harm to programming. After all, master/slave was a perfectly good descriptor of what was intended, but it’s not the only description. So what’s wrong with universally agreeing to eliminate its usage as an industry standard and replace it with words less offensive?
The answer is that it would do no harm to programming, but that’s not the only issue at stake here. The N-word has but one meaning, one usage. Master has many meanings, including some that relate to slavery in general and African slavery in particular. Slave has fewer meanings, but relates to a concept that’s valuable, which is why a slave drive was named as such, or why some have a slavish adherence to politically correct language.
We can argue over whether there are acceptable substitutes for any word that someone decides is too offensive to see or hear, but that misses the point. These are words. Just words. They have meanings that not only exceed the transitory obsession with race, but deny their availability for others who were also slaves, even if the children can rationalize why their racial obsession trumps all others.
Every Passover, we tell a story of how the Jews were slaves in Egypt. We don’t cry about the story, but rejoice, because we are no longer under the taskmaster’s whip. Without these words, the story can’t be told. These words are necessary. Words allow us to express ideas that are necessary. And they’re just words. They don’t really harm anyone, unlike the N-word.