Exclusionary Code?

So, there’s a controversy in the R coding community (which I’ve never heard of, but that doesn’t mean anything). Again, this controversy strikes such a chord that both Vox Day and P.Z. Myers have commented on it. Again, you get no points for figuring out which side each of them is on. Anyway, here are the details:

It points to a line in the R source code containing a variable called, with all seriousness…


I don’t think that this is an intentional sexual reference – far from it, I’m certain it’s just due to an absence of familiarity with one particularly crass English idiom, and I have only ever known the developer who wrote the code (whose first language is not English) to be entirely proper, entirely reasonable, and the model of what a productive Core member should be.

But it needs to go anyway: it’s exclusionary as all hell to have language like this in the core implementation and we can’t expect people to instantly understand intentions.

The reaction to this change was, well, strong, to say the least:

The second was a set of emails from Duncan Murdoch, President of the R Foundation and an R Core member, in which he dismissed my “bug report” (note the skeptical scare quotes he put on it) “about some variable name that you find offensive is clearly an example of nothing more than shit-disturbing” and stated that myself, and those who had commented in favour of changing it, were no longer welcome to participate in R’s bug-tracker.

I independently confirmed that our accounts had been banned and locked – as had the bug, and replied to Duncan explaining my thinking and motivation and asking in what capacity the ban had been made.

Eventually, at least some of the people’s accounts were unlocked, and the change went through.

Now, the main question here is this: is it really the case that the variable name was “exclusionary as hell”, or was this a case where people should have just done the equivalent of “Heh, heh, ‘iGiveHead'” and went on their merry way? Note that everyone accepts that this was not intentional, and thus that it likely follows a personal or even standard variable naming convention that happens to produce this unfortunate phrasing given English sexual slang. So we can’t call it exclusionary on the basis that it was aimed even at being unprofessional, let alone that it was aimed at excluding certain people. So we need something else to make that case. What, then, makes that case?

If you follow the comments on Myers’ post, you’ll see a lot of people trying to explain why this is exclusionary, which ends up being nothing more than a massive set of psychobabble and pseudo-philosophy that, ultimately, says nothing at all. For example:

In a male-dominated culture, particularly one with a high content of brocialists, “iGiveHead” would be read as those who give head, and those who receive, split into the standard binary, giving more value, of course, to the natural receivers (themselves), and that reads sexist to me. Perhaps I’m alone on this one.

Caine is not alone on this one … but there is no reason to think that interpreting it that way is, in fact, at all reasonable or meaningful. Again, this wasn’t intentional, so no one is trying to say that, and most people will react to this with “Heh, heh, iGiveHead” in the same way as the OotS reacts to “Great Cleavage”. So this reaction really says more about the person who is taking offense than anyone else.

The best argument boils down to “It’s not professional”. And it isn’t. But I suspect that Oliver, when he submitted the report, was careful to point out that he wasn’t claiming any sexist intent on the part of the author … but still suggested that it needed to be changed because of its exclusionary and sexist implications. I might be wrong, but given the reaction I suspect that he didn’t just say that it was inadvertently unprofessional, but that it was inadvertently offensive, which spawned the reaction that all he was doing here was causing trouble. A simple comment of “Variable name is kinda unprofessional” probably wouldn’t have garnered the reaction that it did.

Which leads me to the idea that for something that those opposed to the change think is so minor, they’re certainly angered enough by it, a common complaint in the comments in Myers’ post. They’re not upset over the debate, but instead over the fact that, essentially, this is taken as a comment on the community with implications that don’t follow from an inadvertent “iGiveHead” variable name. Somehow, someone coming across that variable should think that the community is in some way “exclusionary”, and trying to cut them out of the community, when in reality most people think that it deserves a snort and moving on. It’s particularly bad here because, again, everyone concedes that it’s not intentional and just an inadvertent result of some kind of standard naming convention … but somehow someone just coming onto the project would be reasonable to assume that that one case is an indication both of the attitudes of the community as a whole and of attitudes that don’t even necessarily follow from the variable name itself.

The recent fights between “Social Justice Warriors” and myriad others, it seems to me, fits well into this pattern. While the “Social Justice Warriors” claim that they are merely commenting on specific events and attitudes and aren’t really attacking anyone, they almost always end up at least implying something about the attitudes of the community, and this gets revealed the instant someone doesn’t agree with their suggestions. And if you attack people for attitudes that they don’t have, they tend to react … badly, to say the least. Can those who advocate for “Social Justice” achieve their ends without attacking people directly, and just pointing out how things are, at least, inappropriate for the circumstances? It seems not, and maybe that’s because, despite all their claims to care mostly about the specific harms to specific people, they really care about far more than that … and, perhaps, not about that at all unless it also fulfills their specific Social Justice agenda.

(Yeah, that last bit is a bit inflammatory. Then again, this kinda annoys me, too, as I always here the “I only said X!” when, in my experience, they never merely say X).

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