Making our conversations more inclusive

I’ve only recently moved into this space a few months ago and I come from web tech and the JS space. My previous employer, colleagues and JS communities cared heavily about Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) and over time, I’ve come to understand how language plays a large part in either welcoming or excluding individuals.

A trivial example in this space can be seen here: A simple PR was submitted yet the authors don’t seem to even care to change their approach.

I noticed even here, at Devcon, at times the language has bordered on exclusionary. At the keynote today, it was great to see the introduction to the Czech language, but I felt that it soon turned problematic. “Flirting” can go both ways, but in the context of this event, implicitly condoning that attendees drink beer and flirt with others, sends a message that seems to not be in line with the principles of the community.

Do others feel this way?

I don’t see the issue with the “flirting” thing. It was meant in jest and I’m sure the vast majority of people watching were able to decipher that. Furthermore, what are the principles of the community? Where have they been articulated? Would they exclude what I consider to be normal human behaviour?

I think the most important skill in a modern world is listening to others’ experiences. Sometimes words can be embedded in contexts that are very different from contexts we’re familiar with, and yet that doesn’t necessarily mean we should stop using them. Occasionally, the historical trauma around a word is so great, or the connotation so universally negative, that I agree the ethical thing to do is to just never say/use the word(s).

That said, I’ve also learned that being too cautious has its downsides as well. If we allow only negative embeddings to influence the global allowability of a word, all words become more and more “off limits” as we become more aware of any context in which the word may be offensive. The world is a very, very large place, and there is a good chance that any chosen word can pick up meaning in some circles that is not intended by others.

As an example, I’m Canadian and in my family circle, “little monkey” was a term of endearment. My grandpa used to smile and show his acceptance of me when using that term as he acknowledged that as a kid I had a lot of energy and loved to climb and play upside down. I’ve since learned that in the USA there is a common context in which this has been applied to black people in a disparaging way–comparing them to a “less than human” status. There was a story on Reddit this year where a Canadian dad used this term of endearment towards his son in a playground, and a black woman who overheard this took offense. She accused him of some unkind things by assuming his intent. So in this case, someone who was trying to enforce the negative context of a word as the only legitimate interpretation was inadvertently hurting someone with no ill intent (and speaking to his own child).

Personally, I don’t think talking about flirting and beer, or reference to dead beef crosses any lines, but I’m open to listening and understanding. I don’t have a perfect solution to the context-switching problem of word use, but I think we can often mitigate damage just by showing we’re open to hearing another’s fear, hurt, or anger. Sometimes that’s enough; other times, more action is required.

I think this is the most important thing we can do as a community. As you’ve described the semiotics associated with specific words can never really be understood by everyone, that is the whole point of subjective truth. It is on us as a community to create space and empower those marginalized to voice their perspectives and it is on the community to understand that fear, hurt, or anger is more than enough reason to change our ways.

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