Network Working Group                                          M. Knodel
Internet-Draft                         Center for Democracy & Technology
Intended status: Best Current Practice                      N. ten Oever
Expires: December 18, 2020Texas A&M University and University of Amsterd
                                                           June 16, 2020

               Terminology, Power and Inclusive Language


   This document argues for moving away from specific language
   conventions used by RFC authors and RFC Editors in order to encourage
   inclusive terminology in the ongoing RFC series.  The document also
   provides examples of inclusive terminology as precise alternatives
   for these conventions.

   The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT",
   document are to be interpreted as described in [RFC2119].

Status of This Memo

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   This Internet-Draft will expire on December 18, 2020.

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   publication of this document.  Please review these documents

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   carefully, as they describe your rights and restrictions with respect
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   described in the Simplified BSD License.

1.  Introduction

   The primary function of the IETF is to publish documents that are
   "readable, clear, consistent, and reasonably uniform" and one
   function of the RFC Editor is to "[c]orrect larger content/clarity
   issues; flag any unclear passages for author review [RFC7322].  Given
   the importance of communication at the IETF, it is worth considering
   the effects of terminology that has been identified as exclusionary.
   This document argues that certain obviously exclusionary terms should
   be avoided and replaced with alternatives.

   First, arguments are presented for why exclusionary terms should be
   avoided by the IETF/IRTF in general.  Second, problem statements for
   two sets of terms are presented and alternatives are referenced and
   proposed.  There is a third section on additional considerations and
   general action points to address the RFC series, past and future.
   Lastly, a summary of recommendations is presented.

   The sets of terms discussed in this document are "master-slave" and

2.  Terminology and power at the IETF

   According to the work of scholar Heather Brodie Graves from 1993,
   "one goal of the application of rhetorical theory in the technical
   communication classroom is to assess the appropriateness of
   particular terms and to evaluate whether these terms will facilitate
   or hinder the readers' understanding of the technical material"
   [BrodieGravesGraves].  This implies that in order to effectively
   communicate the content of RFCs to all readers, it is important for
   Authors to consider the kinds of terms or language conventions that
   may inadvertently get in the way of effective communication.  She
   continues, "complex and subtle configurations of sexist, racist, or
   ethnocentric language use in technical documents can derail or
   interfere with readers' ability and desire to comprehend and follow
   important information."

   Indeed, problems of language are problems of everyday speech.  Racist
   and sexist language is rampant and similarly counter-productive in
   other sectors, notably social work [Burgest].  The terms "master-
   slave," treated in detail below are present in other realms of
   technology, notably "automotive clutch and brake systems, clocks,

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   flip-flop circuits, computer drives, and radio transmitters"
   [Eglash].  And the ubiquitous word "robot" is the Czech word for
   "slave" [Kurfess].

   However as noted in the research by Ron Eglash, this seemingly
   entrenched technical terminology is relatively recent.  It is not too
   late for these terms to be replaced with alternative metaphors that
   are more accurate, clearer, less distracting, and that do not offend
   their readers.  Language matters and metaphors matter.  Indeed,
   metaphors can be incredibly useful devices to make more human the
   complex technical concepts presented in RFCs.  Metaphors should not
   be avoided but rather taken seriously.  Renowned linguist George
   Lakoff argued in 1980 that the ubiquitous use of metaphors in our
   everyday speech indicates a fundamental instinct to "structure our
   most basic understandings of experience" [Lakoff].  Metaphors
   structure relationships, and they frame possibilities and
   impossibilities [Wyatt].

   Like Graves, this document recognises the monumental challenge of
   addressing linguistics and power and attempts to "promote awareness
   that may lead to eventual wide-spread change" [BrodieGravesGraves].
   To that effect, below is a tersely written list of IETF-specific
   arguments as to why the RFC Editor should be encouraged to correct
   larger content and clarity issues with respect to offensive

   o  The RFC series is intended to remain online in perpetuity.
      Societal attitudes to offensive language shift over time in the
      direction of more empathy, not less.

   o  That offensive terms in RFCs are largely hidden from the larger
      public, or read only by engineers, is no excuse to ignore social-
      level reactions to the terms.  If the terms would be a poor choice
      for user-facing application features, the terms should be avoided
      in technical documentation and specifications, too.

   o  At the time of this drafting, the digital technology community has
      a problem with monoculture.  And because the diversity of the
      technical community is already a problem, a key strategy to
      breaking monoculture is to ensure that technical documentation is
      addressed to a wide audience and multiplicity of readers.

   o  And yet the technical community already includes members who take
      offense to these terms.  Eradicating the use of offensive
      terminology in official RFCs recognises the presence of and
      acknowledges the requests from black and brown engineers and from
      women and gender-non-conforming engineers to avoid the use of
      offensive terminology.

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   This document does not try to prescribe terminology shifts for any
   and all language that could be deemed offensive.  Instead what follow
   are specific alternative suggestions to "master-slave" and "white-
   blacklist" and the rationale for the use of the alternatives.
   Additional considerations are presented in a subsequent section.

2.1.  Master-slave

   Master-slave is an offensive metaphor that will and should never
   become fully detached from history.  Aside from being unprofessional
   and offensive it stifled the participation of students whom Eglash
   interviewed for his research.  He asks: "If the master-slave metaphor
   affected these tough-minded engineers who had the gumption to make it
   through a technical career back in the days when they may have been
   the only black persons in their classes, what impact might it have on
   black students who are debating whether or not to enter science and
   technology careers at all?"  [Eglash]

   Aside from the arguably most important reason outlined above, these
   terms are becoming less used and therefore increasingly less
   compatible as more communities move away from its use (eg [Python],
   [Drupal], [Github] and [Django].  The usage of 'master' and 'slave'
   in hardware and software has been halted by the Los Angeles County
   Office of Affirmative Action, the Django community, the Python
   community and several other programming languages.  This was done
   because the language is offensive and hurts people in the community
   [Django2].  Root operator Internet Systems Consortium stopped using
   the terms because they were asked to [ISC].

   In addition to being inappropriate and arcane, the master-slave
   metaphor is both technically and historically inaccurate.  For
   instance, in DNS the 'slave' is able to refuse zone transfers on the
   ground that it is malformed.  The metaphor is incorrect historically
   given the most recent centuries during which "the role of the master
   was to abdicate and the role of the slave was to revolt"
   [McClelland].  Yet in another sense slavery is also not 'just an
   historic term', whereas freedom from slavery is a human-rights issue
   [UDHR], it continues to exist in the present [Wikipedia].
   Furthermore, this term set wasn't revived until recently, after WWII,
   and after many of the technologies that adopted it were already in
   use with different terminology [Eglash].

   Lastly, we present not an additional rationale against their use, but
   an indicator of actual racism in the community that has been surfaced
   as a result of this larger debate among technologists, "I don't
   believe in PC (political correctness), mostly because the minorities
   constantly use it to get away with anything" [Jansens].  This
   illustrates the need to, as Graves is cited above as saying, continue

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   to raise awareness within our community for eventual, lasting change
   on the continued front of struggle against the racists amongst us.

2.1.1.  Suggested alternatives

   There are also many other relationships that can be used as
   metaphors, Eglash's research calls into question the accuracy of the
   master-slave metaphor.  Fortunately, there are ample alternatives for
   the master-slave relationship.  Several options are suggested here
   and should be chosen based on the pairing that is most clear in

   o  Primary-secondary

   o  Primary-replica

   o  Leader-follower

   o  Active-standby

   o  Writer-reader

   o  Coordinator-worker

   o  Parent-helper

   Since the use of master-slave is becoming less common in other
   technical communities, it is best to simply duplicate the metaphor
   being used by comparable or interoperable technologies.  Likewise,
   the IETF can show positive leadership in the technical community by
   setting standards without using offensive metaphors.

   For the DNS, RFC 8499 defines the current best practise for DNS
   terminology and uses the term pair 'primary' and 'secondary'

2.2.  Blacklist-whitelist

   The metaphorical use of white-black to connote good-evil is
   offensive.  While master-slave might seem like a more egregious
   example of racism, white-black is arguably worse because it is more
   pervasive and therefore more insidious.  While recent headlines have
   decried the technical community's use of master-slave, there is far
   less discussion about white-black despite its importance.  There is
   even a name for this pervasive language pitfall: the association of
   white with good and black with evil is known as the "bad is black
   effect" [Grewal].

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   Indeed, there is an entire book on the subject, written by renowned
   authority on race, Frantz Fanon.  In his book "Black Skin, White
   Masks," Fanon makes several persuasive arguments that standard
   language encodes subconscious in-group, out-group preferences

   In the case of blacklist-whitelist in the technical documentation of
   the IETF/IRTF, it is entirely a term of art and an arbitrary
   metaphorical construct with no technical merit.  There are scientific
   uses of black that are related to light- blackholes are black because
   light cannot escape them; a spectrographic blackbox is used as a
   metaphor for things that cannot be seen (e.g., blackbox is really a
   riff on the metaphor for light as visibility).  Blacklist-whitelist
   is not a metaphor for lightness or darkness, it is a good-evil
   metaphor and therefore this trope has significant impact on how
   people are seen and treated.  As we've seen with metaphors, its use
   is pervasive and, though not necessarily conscious, perceptions do
   get promulgated through culture and repetition.

   As with master-slave, we save our technical argument for last,
   referencing and presenting first the reasons for the use of non-
   offensive, alternative terminology for the sake of our humanity.
   Indeed, our technical argument is incredibly succinct: Why use a
   metaphor when a direct description is both succinct and clear?  There
   can be absolutely no ambiguity if one uses the terms, as suggested
   below, allow-block rather than white-black.

2.2.1.  Suggested alternatives

   There are alternatives to this terminology set that vastly improve
   clarity because they are not even metaphors without adding a single
   additional character.  The alternatives proposed here say exactly
   what they mean:

   o  Blocklist-allowlist

   o  Deny-allow

   o  Droplist-accesslist

   o  Drop-permit

   o  Block-permit

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2.3.  Other considerations

   As we have seen, the language used in technical documentation, like
   all written text, creates and reinforces expectations and
   stereotypes.  We propose nothing more than additional care in the
   choice of language just as care is taken in defining standards and
   protocols themselves.  The above two examples are not exhaustive, nor
   are they mere examples and require action.  However, we use this
   section to broaden the context of other offensive terminologies to
   encompass additional concerns.

   There are many other metaphors present in technical documentation
   that are "terms of art" but that have no technical basis whatsoever.
   That some of these metaphors are offensive leaves no excuses for
   their continued use.  A term like "man-in-the-middle" is not
   technically useful.  It is not a standard term, not as clear as its
   alternative "on-path attacker", and should therefore be avoided.
   When presented with the opportunity to employ the use of metaphors or
   to parrot terms of art that connote gender or race, Authors should
   simply find a better way to explain themselves.  A fun read on the
   politics of colloquial speech by George Orwell should dissuade any
   clever Author from using tired explanatory metaphors [Orwell].

   Up until recently, strict English grammatists like Orwell decried the
   use of the neutral pronoun "they".  Without a neutral singular
   pronoun, "he" is assumed as the default singular pronoun when the
   gender of the person is unknown or ambiguous.  However, that has
   changed, and it is now widely accepted that "they" can be used as a
   neutral singular pronoun.  Since it is unlikely that all implementers
   and infrastructure operators are of any particular gender, "he"
   should never be used to refer to a person in IETF/IRTF documents.  An
   Author who uses male examples sets male-ness as a standard.

   Militarised metaphors are also a pervasive problem in language,
   perhaps even more so in technical communities because of the
   historical and actual relationship between technology and war.  We
   welcome additional examples of terminology that might be avoided
   through more awareness and thoughtfulness.

3.  Summary of recommendations

   To summarise this document, we have bulleted some very concrete
   action points that can be taken by Editors, reviewers and Authors,
   both present and future.

   Authors SHOULD: * Replace the offensive term "master-slave" with more
   accurate alternatives, for instance from the list of Section 2.1.  *
   Replace the offensive term "blacklist-whitelist" with more accurate

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   alternative, for instance from the list of suggested alternatives at
   Section 2.2.  * Reflect on their use of metaphors generally * Use the
   neutral "they" as the singular pronoun and * Consider rolling back
   technical hard coding of their standards implementations with the
   documented knowledge available online [socketwench].

   RFC Editor and Reviewers MUST: * Offer alternatives for offensive
   terminology as an important act of correcting larger editorial issues
   and clarifying technical concepts and * Suggest to Authors that even
   when referencing other specifications that have not replaced
   offensive terminology they could provide another term with a note
   that the term is original and not being suggested by the Author.

4.  Additional references not cited above

   ''Anyone can edit', not everyone does: Wikipedia and the gender gap'
   by Ford, Heather and Wajcman, Judy (2017) Social Studies of Science.
   ISSN 0306-3127

   Grant, Barbara M.  "Master--slave dialogues in humanities

   Miller, Carolyn.  "A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing"

5.  Security Considerations

   As this document concerns a research document, there are no security

6.  IANA Considerations

   This document has no actions for IANA.

7.  References

7.1.  Normative References

   [RFC2119]  Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate
              Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC2119, March 1997,

7.2.  Informative References

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              Heather Brodie Graves, . and . Roger Graves, "Masters,
              slaves, and infant mortality: Language challenges for
              technical editing", Technical Communication Quarterly,
              7:4, 389-414 , 1998,

   [Burgest]  Burgest, David., ""Racism in Everyday Speech and Social
              Work Jargon."", Social Work, vol. 18, no. 4, 1973, pp.
              20-25 , 1973, <>.

   [Django]   fcurella, ., "#22667 replaced occurrences of master-slave
              terminology with leader/follower #2692", 2014,

   [Django2]  lynncyrin, ., "comment on #22667 replaced occurrences of
              master-slave terminology with leader/follower #2692",
              2014, <

   [Drupal]   Xano, ., "Replace 'master-slave' terminology with
              'primary/replica'", 2014,

   [Eglash]   Ron Eglash, ., "Broken Metaphor: The Master-Slave Analogy
              in Technical Literature.", Technology and Culture, vol. 48
              no. 2, 2007, pp. 360-369. , 2007,

   [Fanon]    Fanon, F., "Black skin, white masks", 1952.

   [Github]   Kevin Truong, . and VICE, "Github to Remove 'Master/Slave'
              Terminology From its Platform", June 2020,

   [Grewal]   Grewal, D., "The 'Bad Is Black' Effect", 2017,

   [ISC]      Internet Systems Consortium, ., "@ISCdotORG reply tweet",

   [Jansens]  Bart Jansens, ., "I don't believe in PC", 2008,

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   [Kurfess]  Kurfess, Thomas., "Robotics and Automation Handbook",

   [Lakoff]   George Lakoff, . and . Mark Johnson, "Metaphors We Live
              By", U of Chicago P, 1980. , n.d..

              McClelland, J., "We need better metaphors", 2011,

   [Orwell]   George Orwell, ., "Politics and the English Language",

   [Python]   Daniel Oberhaus, ., "'master-slave' Terminology Was
              Removed from Python Programming Language", 2018,

   [RFC7322]  Flanagan, H. and S. Ginoza, "RFC Style Guide", RFC 7322,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC7322, September 2014,

   [RFC8499]  Hoffman, P., Sullivan, A., and K. Fujiwara, "DNS
              Terminology", BCP 219, RFC 8499, DOI 10.17487/RFC8499,
              January 2019, <>.

              socketwench, ., "Even in tech, words matter", 2018,

   [UDHR]     United Nations General Assembly, "The Universal
              Declaration of Human Rights", 1948,

              Wikipedia, "Slavery in the 21st century", 2018,

   [Wyatt]    Sally Wyatt, ., "Danger! Metaphors at Work in Economics,
              Geophysiology, and the Internet", Science, Technology, and
              Human Values, Volume: 29 issue: 2, page(s): 242-261 ,

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Authors' Addresses

   Mallory Knodel
   Center for Democracy & Technology


   Niels ten Oever
   Texas A&M University and University of Amsterdam


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