Masters, Blacklists, Cops and Positive Impact

The protests that have erupted across the United States over the past several weeks in response to the police killing of George Floyd represent what I believe to be a violent but necessary action. As a non-American, I've often been left disturbed and bewildered when I read about yet another seeming execution of a civilian by an American police officer.

From the outside, police officers in the U.S appear to be an extremely insular and trigger-happy bunch. They may very well believe that their lives are under constant threat as they go about their duties, which may go some way towards explaining the apparent lack of restraint in their use of deadly weapons. Still I would expect that in a functioning society there would be some accountability when the police shoot an unarmed person mistakenly, or in the case of George Floyd's death, use what is clearly excessive physical force on someone who is incapacitated.

Which is all to say that there does indeed appear to be a serious problem with how the police in the United States operates and that needs to be addressed. I'm not an expert by any means, but incentive systems are pretty universally effective as a tool, so I'll put forward some thoughts on it that you as reader should feel free to ignore.

If a police officer receives a mere slap on the wrist when they wrongfully kill someone, then they have no clear incentive to correct their behaviour. In fact, what's emerged as the U.S media looks more closely at police practices over the past several weeks is a picture of officers with multiple kills under their belts being briefly suspended and then returned to duty. Few, if any, receive significant punishment and fewer still can expect to face criminal charges for taking a human life. That's something that clearly needs to change.

There will always be situations in which an officer will need to use deadly force against a suspect, especially in the U.S where criminals are more likely to be armed, but there have been so many stories told of situations in which drawing a gun was clearly unnecessary. The circumstances in which a police officer can be allowed to pull a weapon or use deadly force has to be constrained, and when an officer breaches those boundaries there needs to be a system of accountability that will punish them.

There's also a clear distrust between black citizens and their own police force, born out of what appears to be a serious streak of racism on the part of police. Black people have a starkly different experience with police encounters than white people do. I've spoken with colleagues and read accounts of traffic stops, encounters on the street and other situations in which they have genuine fear for their lives, because they're simply more likely to be killed by the police. That's not to say that police killings are an exclusively black problem, but the problem seems to affect black people disproportionately worse.

I'm not sure what the basis for this bias is, but it needs to be examined very closely and corrected; black people have a right to be treated equally to white people by their society and especially by the institutions that form its structure.

That long preamble brings me to my main point in all of this: the situation is extremely complicated. The tension between the black and white communities has been formed by centuries of history that extend even beyond the founding of the nation. Great progress has been made, and will continue to be made, but progress is made fastest when people aim to achieve concrete goals or to have demands fulfilled. A real impact has to be made on society and for that to happen, careful thought, planning and significant effort are needed.

This is why I find it so frustrating when social media dilutes the potential impact of a movement by focusing people on simple and unhelpful goals, the most recent example of which is the demand for changes to terminology in technology such as master in the case of Git and distributed systems, the terms whitelist and blacklist more generally and even project names such as RuboCop due to its reference to police.

First of all, spending energy on changing these terms is not a good use of anyone's time, either those demanding the change or those who are being pressured to implement it. No lives will be saved, no-one will be lifted out of poverty, no police officer will be held accountable. It's the worst kind of performative justice in that it's an easy way for people to feel like they're helping while actually acting as a sink for their capacity for effort that sucks it away from meaningful action. The passion with which people on Twitter and GitHub are seen to be arguing these points represents energy that ought to be directed pretty anywhere else.

Second of all, it's frustrating because these demands basically disregard all context and instead put forward the nebulous idea of 'harm' as the reason why change must be made. Oddly enough, the demands are usually made by white people or representatives from other groups who aren't the ones supposedly being harmed, but I don't want to get into that in this post. Let's look at context first: does the name master in the context of Git or version control reference or endorse slavery? I think it's clear that it doesn't. It simply means 'primary' or 'main'.

Does whitelist or blacklist in the context of software functionality imply some kind of value judgement on skin colour? Clearly not, I would argue that no-one who uses these terms even links them to humans; writing software is usually dealing with abstractions and these words just mean 'components of a filter'.

Does the name RuboCop imply that the project endorses police violence? Highly unlikely, in fact the movie to which the name refers, Robocop, was a piece of satire that poked at America's fetish for violence in media and of capitalism without restraint. Now it's just the name of a project, so when you hear the name you associate it with a Ruby linter, not a man in uniform drawing a gun.

An argument being made by those who are demanding these changes is that it's not a lot of effort to implement them. In fact I'd say that's beside the point; if those of us who resist these changes believed that this would be the end of them we might very well just go along with all of this, but we know that it won't end here. Tenuous links will be drawn between words like 'chain' and slavery, then we'll need to scrub references to BlockChain technology due to the harm that hearing them would undoubtedly cause. The creep of context abandonment is inevitable unless we draw a line somewhere and say that it no longer makes sense to indulge in it.

Context is important, and I don't want to let go of it in order to prevent some ill-defined harm; the potential to weaponise that argument into a tool for bullying people into doing what you want is too clear to be ignored. More than that, I don't want to waste time on something that clearly won't help anyone. It won't increase the number of minorities in technology or decrease the number of lives lost on the streets to poverty or violence. Instead I see it as a selfish act of self-indulgence by people for whom social media is like some kind of drug that they need to take in order to feel good about themselves.

I very much hope that life improves for minorities and the poor in the United States, just as I hope for the same in my own country. I'm convinced that we'll achieve true equality some day, if only because we've already come so far as a species over time. That said, if we want it to happen faster let's think hard about where to direct our time and resources and not waste them. Get out and protest, donate to charitable organizations, vote in local, state and presidential elections, participate in government, pressure those in power to make changes, and be exact and considered about what those changes should be.