The Power of a Pronoun

November 30, 2013 - by Bryan Cantrill

Long ago in my technical writing, I sought to eliminate gendered pronouns when referring to unnamed people or entities. It's not that I'm fooling myself into believing that eliminating gendered pronouns somehow gets more women into computer science, but rather that I think that using male pronouns sounds like a holdover from the era of the kitchen computer. As for the mechanics of doing this, I personally dislike randomly substituting "she" for "he"; my preference is to use the singular they/them, recasting the sentence as necessary when that sounds too awkward.

I say all of this because of a recent issue in node.js, a Joyent-sponsored project. One of the node.js core contributors, Ben Noordhuis, rejected a pull request that eliminated the use of a gendered pronoun in libuv. Now, this was quickly reversed by node.js project lead Isaac Schlueter (that is, Isaac accepted the patch eliminating the gendered pronoun), but because this is a Joyent-sponsored project, many made the reasonable inference that Ben is a Joyent employee—and have called Joyent to task for tolerating such poor behavior. (Especially when that poor behavior transcended into the gobsmackingly inappropriate as Ben tried to revert Isaac's commit.)

But while Isaac is a Joyent employee, Ben is not—and if he had been, he wouldn't be as of this morning: to reject a pull request that eliminates a gendered pronoun on the principle that pronouns should in fact be gendered would constitute a fireable offense for me and for Joyent. On the one hand, it seems ridiculous (absurd, perhaps) to fire someone over a pronoun -- but to characterize it that way would be a gross oversimplification: it's not the use of the gendered pronoun that's at issue (that's just sloppy), but rather the insistence that pronouns should in fact be gendered. To me, that insistence can only come from one place: that gender—specifically, masculinity—is inextricably linked to software, and that's not an attitude that Joyent tolerates. This isn't merely a legalistic concern (though that too, certainly), but also a technical one: we believe that empathy is a core engineering value—and that an engineer that has so little empathy as to not understand why the use of gendered pronouns is a concern almost certainly makes poor technical decisions as well.

While we would fire Ben over this, node.js is an open source project and one doesn't necessarily have the same levers. Indeed, one of the challenges of an open source project that depends on volunteer effort is dealing with assholes, and fortunately in this regard, node.js is in Isaac's very capable hands. Isaac is one of the most inclusive, empathetic engineers that I have ever had the privilege to work with, and I know that he will deal with Ben's unacceptable behavior accordingly and in the best interests of node.js. But just so you heard it from us: if this were the act of a Joyent employee, we would—to deliberately use a gender-neutral pronoun—fire them.