Language and Emotion

One trick candle on the Open Source/Tech community’s cake has always been inclusiveness vs. culture. Every few ticks it reignites, sending the partiers scurrying, trying to decide why that damn candle keeps combusting, what to do about it.

Let’s say you adopt an old sled dog, and it has this habit of running to the right every time you exclaim, “gee!” And you scold the dog, “dummy, why you do that?”

So let’s say you have a developer, and they’re trying to express themselves well for a presentation. They have some aesthetic philosophy for presentations, some learned directly and some by the experience of seeing things that seemed appealing to them.

They want to make their work humorous, knowing that humor helps people to learn and remember and pay attention. And they want to use strong language, because saying something like, “maybe, if you think you might possibly need your data at some potential future time, you could probably store it on a hard drive, thumb drive, or some other long-term storage medium, if you want to,” happens to be a poor use of language.

They want it direct, they want their words to punch the listener, to motivate real action and progress. “Wake up! Stop storing everything since 1970 in volatile memory! If our boxen crash, we won’t even know who won the last Supergame!”

Or they have a hard go of making some esoteric subject like How to Whitespace Your Cascading Style Sheets funny. They find that after their third “tab” pun, it’s sounding a bit stale and lame. They write code, manage coders. They aren’t pro comics. Most of the humor they’ve directly experienced in their lives have been in private conversations with other people of the same groups, and the major direction of that humor has been group solidarity and reinforcing group behavior.

You also run into outsiders of the culture, unfamiliar with the cultural context of some of the language and behaviors.

But willing these cultures out of existence will fail. Replace them, that’s the key.

The problem: replace them with what? You need roughly a one-to-one mapping of terms. And your terms have to be bolder, stronger somehow, than their inferiors.

Let’s say the word is butthead. The person chose a term offensive to people with butts for heads, or whatever. “Don’t be a butthead, have your editor make whitespace visible to ensure you don’t leave any excess.”

Butthead, a pretty rough word. The audience would look up, seeing the glint in the speaker’s eye as they said it. They would say, “I do not want to be a butthead, did you see that glint! I will always check if I’m leaving excess whitespace in my styles!” They will create plugins for their editors, to add an icon of a butthead in the corner if the “make whitespace visible” option is turned off. There will be a parade in the speaker’s honor.

But no, it is not to be, butthead is potentially offensive. Our hero requires a replacement, equally strong but without the cultural baggage attached. Where might such a word be found? A thesaurus?

ass, asshead, badaud, bakehead, beetlehead, block, blockhead, blubberhead, blunderhead, bonehead, boob, booby, bullhead, cabbagehead, calf, chowderhead, chucklehead, chump, clod, clodhopper, clodpate, clodpole, dizzard, dolt, domnoddy, donkey, doodle, dope, dotard, doughhead, duffer, dullard, dullhead, dully, dumb-bunny, dumbbell, dumbhead, dumby, dummy, dunce, dunderhead, fathead, flat, fool, foozle, gabby, gaby, galoot, gawk, git, goof, goon, gowk, idiot, ignoramus, imbecile, jackass, jerk, jobbernowl, jolthead, knucklehead, loggerhead, looby, loon, lout, lubber, lummox, lunkhead, mooncalf, mutt, muttonhead, nincompoop, ninny, ninnyhammer, nitwit, noddy, nonny, noodle, noodlehead, numbskull, numskull, oaf, pumpkinhead, put, rube, sap, saphead, sawney, schlemiel, shallowbrain, shallowpate, simpleton, soft, softhead, softy, sop, sot, squarehead, stick, stock, stupid, stupidhead, swab, thickhead, thickskull, thickwit, tomfool, tommy noddy, twit, wiseacre, witling, woodenhead, yokel, zany

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. That list omits a lot of other terms, and doesn’t attempt to include modern terms like lamer or luser, some of which come specialized from specific fields and subcultures.

Maybe the speaker can find an appropriate replacement. That’s the challenge: a term that beats the most salient term the speaker had, while keeping in the realm of understanding of the audience. But the challenge goes further. If every time someone wants to use strong language they must wade through a sea of words, the cognitive cost for just composing a simple sentence becomes too dear.

Instead the challenge morphs into finding good replacements and using them. Akin to running a business to supplant the market leader, the new terminology must exceed the old terms’ cultural expectations and desired traits.

This challenge reminds me somewhat of the various online communities I have encountered over time with bars on swearing or use of explicit language. They implement this as a filter: the incoming text is scanned against a list of offending terms, and offending terms are replaced with placeholder characters. They never publish a list of terms, and the kids always find circumventions, either through unicode/encoding methods, or finding terms that are not censored but are just as explicit as those that are.

But ultimately this is a matter for an evolving culture to deal with. It’s entirely healthy for offended people to speak up. Calling for heads to roll doesn’t do much good unless the offense is particularly direct and dire (eg, they insulted someone directly without provocation and in a manner that constitutes an attack). But calling for more thoughtfulness is always in order. Calling for renewal of the community bonds is appropriate.

It’s not appropriate to seek to silence the critics of the critics. Devolving into a them versus us mentality in a motion that was predicated on increasing inclusiveness is ridiculous. Again, unless the circumstances were a very direct attack upon an individual or a class of people.

In general, people should be educated about the limitations of the First Amendment, as argued and decided by the Supreme Court of the United States (at least, for communities primarily located there), in order to understand some of the ideas that are essential to what constitutes the improper use of speech. These don’t apply directly to all speech, as communities have their own standards, but that itself is part of the Court’s calculus re: obscenity.