The Master of The Word

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.

Pisanello 1436-38

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.

28 thoughts on “The Master of The Word

  1. KP

    ” If a black person is called the N-word, it will hurt.”

    No, not if its one N walking into a room with other Ns & saying “Yo, my N’s waasup?”
    So sometimes that-word-that-has-been-censored will hurt, sometimes not, it depends on the race of the user.. or the delicacies of those listening.. or something.. ..and didn’t the word ‘black’ hurt a lot of delicacies a few years back, they all changed to ‘people of colour’.

    I’m always amazed at how stupid the world has become. I blame the fluoride in the water… or the plastics, or the Communists taking control of the education system.. one of them.

    1. SHG Post author

      Under other circumstances, this comment would go into the trash, but despite your presentation, it raises a valid point: it’s a word that’s entirely acceptable when uttered by a black person but no one else, so it’s not the word, per se, that hurts, but the word plus context. And if so, then why divorce context otherwise when judging which words should be permissible to avoid offense?

    2. Angrychiatty

      Every time this debate arises, some idiot makes the “point” that black people use the word and so therefore…something. This is not the hill to die on.

      1. SHG Post author

        Definitely not the hill to die on. But it belies an inconsistency that makes the “words are violence” cry ring a bit more hollow.

  2. Skink

    “Master/slave” is too obvious–the Dixie Chicks are just “Chicks;” Lady Antebellum is just “Lady.”* Words tumble all around, but you choose the stuff no one really cares about. Tech is, well, tech. No one really gets it.

    But you mention “whip.” That one’s goner than restaurant breakfast buffets and drinkin’ buddies. What will become of rodeo clowns and lion tamers? One of its rhyming cousins, “ship,” gets dropped in a Swamp hole because slaves and ships. Sorry, that new Chinese phone is gonna cost a bunch more. So will cocaine, but maybe that helps the kid on the corner. Don’t even think of wearing a cotton t-shirt, though that stuff has been picked by machine for a shitpile of decades.

    Related to “whip” and dear to this part of the Swamp is “Cracker.” If they come for that word around here, words ain’t what they’ll be sad about.

    You think you now how this came about, but you don’t: it was McCarthyism. All that stuff was just a diversion. What really happened was a conspiracy to have imbecile orgies. The goal was to create millions of people with frontal lobes configured just like those of voles (relax, it’s a rodent, like a lemming). Maybe one of the Hotel medical-types could help me find the final proof. All we need is a couple million brain CTs.

    *The decision bothers me more than their music, which is Country opus 5, but movement #2. Listening causes shitsprains.

    1. SHG Post author

      As my pal, Kat Rosenfield, pointed out the other day, it’s going to get really awkward for the all-male cross-dressing cover band called the Chixie Dicks.

  3. phv3773

    Other computer terms up for revision are blacklist/whitelist and abort (used for a program that stops suddenly due to an error).

  4. Dave

    Just wait until they find out that tech processes included not only masters and slaves, but daemons as well.

  5. orthodoc

    the irony is that the word “slave” comes from a Latin root meaning “Slavic”, as the subjugated in Rome were from the Baltic region…people that Nikole Hannah-Jones would certainly classify as white enough to be paying reparations.

    and your allusion to the Passover story reminds me that my friends who won’t utter the “Y-word” name of god, Yahweh, instead use “adonai”, meaning “my master”. The story of the exodus can thus be interpreted as exchanging Egyptian controllers for a more celestial one. Exodus is not about losing control. (Complete loss of control is rioting, i mean protesting.) As somebody once said, you “it may be the devil or it may be the Lord/ But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”

    1. SHG Post author

      Thanks for clearing up that critical error, even if it’s unclear when it was put there, but the earlier image is from 10/19.

        1. SHG Post author

          Just because you occasionally wake up earlier than Beth doesn’t mean she wasn’t up to the task. Just sayin’.

  6. B. McLeod

    A whole week of “news” coverage centered on this evil pullcord, even though the “noose” was obviously too small to hang a person. Friday morning, Gayle King was still trying to make some kind of racial incident out of it.

    As far as terminology, scholars of servitudes were very forward thinking, and settled on “dominant” and “servient”. Why can’t people pay more attention to lawyers and their words?

  7. Guitardave

    An extension cord once spoke to me
    It said “dear sir, please set me free,
    I’m so confused about my state
    and how to change this terrible fate.

    I said, I don’t see anything wrong
    your in good repair, and plenty long.
    I roll you up after each use,
    and I’ve never tied you into a noose.

    It said oh no, you treat me fine
    The issues are more about design
    My maker didn’t know it’s mind,
    So I’m male and female AT THE SAME TIME!

  8. Pedantic Grammar Police

    Apparently nobody involved in this story knows what a noose is. The knot historically associated with lynching is the hangman’s noose. A hangman’s noose is a special kind of knot where the rope loops around itself 6-8 times; the heavy mass of the knot intended to crush blood vessels in the neck and if tightened beneath the jaw, to lever the head to one side (from wikipedia). A simple slipknot can also be called a noose. What is not a noose is a bowline, which makes a loop at the end of a rope that will not slip. Bowlines are commonly used for ropes that will be pulled on, and that is what Bubba Wallace found in his garage. How many idiots does it take to create a major news story out of nothing?

  9. Pedantic Grammar Police

    The python change actually did cause significant trouble and expense. Many companies now use old versions of python because they can’t afford to rewrite all of their code. Others bit the bullet and hired people to do it, or delayed new projects so that existing staff could work on the rewrite. Either way the costs were significant.

  10. Bryan Burroughs

    I’m not even remotely surprised that the Python community is having this argument. Of all the coding communities I’ve seen, this is the only one I’ve seen that has an orthodoxy around coding style, with strict adherence being necessary for your programs to be accepted. Not following “the Python Way” is a sure path to ostracism.

    Almost every other community says “does it work, and is it maintainable? Good!”

    Also, because I know you care I worked at a DoE(nergy) site for a while, and there were more than a few stories of some DoE bigwig coming in in the early 2000s and demanding answers for why machines were labeled master and slave. IIRC, they just covered the signs whenever she visited after that.

    1. SHG Post author

      When my son joined the Higgs Boson team at MIT, he was required to use Python for his input. They were all geeks and thought it was idiotic to conflate a language that expressed exactly what it was supposed to express with irrelevant feelings about words. It had nothing to do with slavery. It was just coding language. Had someone chosen different words in the first place, they wouldn’t have cared either. Python was what it was. Nothing more. To suggest otherwise was to brand oneself a computer idiot.

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