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Monica R Ayhens-Madon penned a blog post on the Ubuntu blog this month about Canonical's participation in the Inclusive Naming Initiative and how language in the code and documentation of Ubuntu will be updated to a new set of standards. This is certainly overdue given the tech community's general move towards "less charged" terminology over the last few years, and it's something that I can certainly get behind to a point¹.

With this in mind, does it make sense to edit – or ask an author to edit – posts that use terms that have become frowned upon in recent years? A prime example that has bothered me since the 90s is the term "master" and "slave", when referring to devices or databases.

On other sites, such as the Database Administrators SE, I will edit a post to replace master with "primary", "publisher", or "main" while slave is replaced with "secondary", "subscriber", or "auxiliary". This is wholly dependent on which database engine a person is talking about, of course, as SQL Server, Oracle, PostgreSQL, MySQL, and MariaDB have differing terminology for these systems roles. Is this something we should be doing on AskUbuntu as well?

The people asking and answering questions are generally pretty good about the language that they use already, given that many of the edits made to posts are to set images to appear inline or to wrap Terminal outputs in code blocks but, if Canonical is aiming to define which language is preferable, should the questions and answers on this site follow the same rulebook? Or is AskUbuntu independent enough to choose what language is acceptable and which language should be "updated" based solely on the general principles contained within the Ubuntu Code of Conduct²?


¹ leaving politics aside, compelled speech in any community is suboptimal. As far as I can tell, Canonical is not doing this, so it's all good.
² the Ubuntu Code of Conduct does have a fuzzy set of paragraphs suggesting we "take responsibility for our words and our actions" (the same thing is mentioned numerous times, but with different words), which I would think any normal human being would do by default, but there is nothing explicitly stating that we should not use specific technical terminology that is considered historically loaded, harmful, or "questionably acceptable" in public discourse.

Note: Apologies for the excessive quotation marks. These are used to group terms and/or ideas, not to act as a passive-aggressive "quote-unquote" sort of thing. I make a lot of edits to posts as they come in, so am aiming to ensure the things I change meet community standards and expectations.

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    As a user of Ask Ubuntu, you don't have to follow Ubuntu's Code of Conduct. You only need to follow SE's Code of Conduct. A lot of Ubuntu users don't even know about Ubuntu's Code of Conduct. So I'm not sure if we can have a policy about this and if It would make it less welcoming to new users.
    – Dan
    Mar 31 at 15:52
  • Yeah, I'm not so worried about new people not reading/caring about the various codes of conduct. There is a pretty dedicated group of people making edits to posts as they come in to ensure things are relatively clear and consistent with other questions on the site. So, while editing, should we be changing the language that people use? Or should we leave it as it is, because that's what the person asking/answering a question wrote 🤔
    – matigo
    Mar 31 at 15:55
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  • @Dan uhhh yeah you do its in the rules...
    – Thomas Ward Mod
    Mar 31 at 17:45
  • @ThomasWard I believe you, but where does it say that? I don't see it in the Code of Conduct or in Expected Behaviour
    – cocomac
    Mar 31 at 18:06
  • @cocomac the Ubuntu CoC and SE's CoC and Expected Behavior line up together in terms of how you behave yourself. Essentially it's identical in how you need to behave, so being rude, vindictive, aggressive, etc. towards users is not permitted per the rules so.
    – Thomas Ward Mod
    Mar 31 at 18:18
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    Yes, but there is no requirement to follow the Ubuntu CoC here on AU, is there @ThomasWard? Granted, by following the SE CoC you end up also following the Ubuntu one, but that's just because they tend to cover the same ground as far as I know. Unless something changed, we have never been in any way affiliated with Canonical other than SE using their branding, and only mods need to also sign the Ubuntu CoC. Is that wrong?
    – terdon
    Apr 5 at 11:24
  • Related post in MSE: meta.stackexchange.com/q/324001 Apr 8 at 14:41
  • I believe that, in general, yes, you should "watch your language". However, in cases like these, where people are suddenly uncomfortable with established terms like "master" just because it is a trend, I don't think anything special needs to be done. After all, the naming of the master branch has never really caused any problems. Same with master/slave terminology when it comes to things like disk drives.
    – Dev
    Apr 13 at 12:14

3 Answers 3

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I would, as far as it applies, stick to the names used in the software.

If I have a problem with, for example, not being able to push to the master branch on Github in 2020, I would have googled for the "master" branch.

After the change in 2021, where the "master" branch was renamed to "main", I would be googleing for the "main" branch.

Same with other Ubuntu-related software. I would stick with whatever the stuff is called in Ubuntu, to make sure that people looking for a solution can actually find it using search engines. To me, that is the most important function of names: being able to find/communicate what I mean.

As Ubuntu and other projects are slowly shifting towards less charged terminology, this will also automatically solve that problem here.

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Ask Ubuntu is completely independent of Canonical, so it's up to us to decide what we should do.

I'd support any effort to make Ask Ubuntu more inclusive. Editing to fix stuff that's subtly (or of course unsubtly!) ableist or racist or otherwise likely to be hurtful to some group of people seems in keeping not only with the Ubuntu Code of Conduct, but the Stack Exchange Code of Conduct, which we actually do all need to abide by.

I personally don't want to be prescriptive about what should be changed - there's always a subjective element to editing - but I would encourage people to make language more inclusive when editing as they see fit.

From Monica's post

Inclusive language carries plenty of benefits to justify using it. It reduces barriers to participating in tech spaces. Inclusive language also makes the tasks of writing and translating technical writing much easier.

Words with emotional or historical baggage bring the wrong things to mind. They’re loaded with unintended meanings that they weren’t meant to have, and those who are affected by them can’t escape. These words distract from whatever we were trying to say. Likewise, metaphors and idioms can make it hard for non-primary speakers to understand a text or translate it. Using inclusive language can solve all of these issues at once.

More importantly, inclusive language shows respect for others. Not only does it show welcome and safety – it lets everybody, no matter their background or identity, to reach their full potential at work, in the community, and beyond.

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  • To clarify, when you say " Editing to fix stuff ...", do you mean you support mass-editing to remove terms like 'slave/master'? Or that they should be edited when we come across the post naturally? Or only when we're editing it for something else? I fear a mass-editing campaign would flood the front page. At the same time, I believe that AU should be as inclusive as we can.
    – cocomac
    Mar 31 at 17:16
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    @cocomac I would kind of hope nobody goes on a giant editing spree just for this purpose, but definitely fixing anything one happens to come across would be great
    – Zanna Mod
    Mar 31 at 17:37
  • All this does is make it more difficult to find results. If I want to find how to create a blacklist in some program, I don't want to have to search "blacklist" then "denylist" then "blocklist" then "banlist" then "disallowlist" and whatever other permutations become popular. If there was one, official standard that everyone could somehow switch to and agree on, it would be different, but that's clearly not the case.
    – forest
    Apr 9 at 1:36
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This is an interesting and somewhat difficult topic, where I'm sure there are many different opinions.

I believe that the management groups of different open source projects should in fact ensure that the terminology they use going forward is inclusive. However, the degree on which each project decides to do this may vary.

Using the Master/Slave example, here are a couple of different replacements:

  • One suggestion is Marshal/Soldier. This avoids the ownership metaphor completely, but on the other hand it introduces a military metaphor instead. This is definitely better, but is it good enough to be truly inclusive and not offensive?
  • SaltStack uses Master/Minion. I personally find this completely inoffensive because of the cartoonish associations I get, and as above it is definitely better than the original. But where does the line go for when you can use "Master" in a context that's inclusive and not offensive?

That being said, I don't think questions referring to historical naming conventions should be edited. In my opinion, there is a very fine line when you begin to talk about "editing history" for the sake of political correctness.

Questions should be "correct" for the topic (and time period) being asked about. Imagine you needed to ask a question about a database installation using the old terminology. Here it would only be correct to use the actual terminology at hand.

However, I think it would be a nice gesture to include an explanation/disclaimer that these are "old" terms, that have now been replaced with more inclusive ones. In this way you show that:

  • You are aware of the historical connotations of the past terms
  • You are aware that history must be recognized and not censored
  • You are aware that the terms are changing for something better
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    I think I agree mostly. Personally, I think we should use more inclusive language in the future. But I do NOT think we should go editing existing ones. If you're already editing one for something else, sure. But because there are over 2,000 posts that contain the word 'slave' alone, I'm against mass-editing them (to be clear, I do think we should use more inclusive language - but at the same time, pushing over 2,000 posts to the front page isn't practical)
    – cocomac
    Mar 31 at 17:09
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    I agree with @cocomac that the past should not be “whitewashed” (there’s another term) en masse. There’s no need for this level of effort. Posts with high scores may be changed over time, but to run through a series of zero-score posts just for the sake of completeness seems asinine. What was said was said. What is being said is being said. As I try to remind colleagues and students on a regular basis, context is important. We will never have documents of the past of they’re forever rewritten to accommodate an ever-fluid future.
    – matigo
    Mar 31 at 17:46
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    Well put @matigo. Mar 31 at 17:47
  • @matigo for what it's worth whitewash has nothing to do with race and shouldn't be considered a "term" (if I understood you correctly).
    – terdon
    Apr 5 at 11:28
  • @terdon except for Definition #4 which is exactly about that, but I'm pretty sure matigo didn't mean it that way. 😉 Apr 5 at 11:32
  • @ArturMeinild yes, I mean it isn't a term that has a racist origin as far as I know. It isn't about white being good and black being bad but about whitewash, a specific chemical mix used for centuries to paint things white. So I don't see any reason to treat that word in any special way. It's similar to niggardly which, again, shares nothing with its offensive cousin.
    – terdon
    Apr 5 at 12:21
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    @terdon I'm pretty sure that neither whitelist nor blacklist was originally used in a racist context either. I believe it's the same cultural context as "White knight" and "Black knight", being a symbol of good and evil (and again coming from religious concepts of light and darkness). So in this case, the racist reference is applied to the term afterwards. Just as the term "slave" has originally no racist reference. Ancient civilisations had slaves, which had nothing to do with race or color. So the racist aspect is only applied after the slavery situation during colonization and in the US. Apr 5 at 13:18
  • @ArturMeinild. Whitewashing is not because white is "good", but because it's a simple paint to make with ancient materials.
    – TRiG
    Apr 11 at 18:50

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