The past few weeks, I've been thinking over and over again trying to rationalize how to best foster a culture of inclusivity and diversity. This in the context of creating a productive work climate of trust and respect.

I think it is fair to say we all want other people to feel welcome and respected. Where that gets difficult is that feeling welcome and respected means something different to different people. What seems harmless to you could be hurtful to another. For example, some people tend to be more concerned about the use of crude or sexual language than others. It's a complex issue based on a range of factors including gender, race, age, geographical location and more. There is also a lot of academic research about the fact that derogatory and vulgar language or sexually graphic behavior creates a hostile environment. These two facts combined, makes it a popular topic in the context of diversity and inclusion.

However it is not just a popular topic, it is also a very difficult topic. Why do we feel defensive and argumentative when confronted with a value and belief system different from our own? It is one thing to challenge someone's take on, say, a country's healthcare system, it is another thing to challenge someone's beliefs. Challenge someone's beliefs, and you challenge their sense of self.

Given all this, is it possible to be inclusive of everyone? For example, can we be inclusive of those who are easily put off by sexually graphic or vulgar language and at the same time be inclusive of those who often use crude or sexual language? Does supporting one group of people mean turning away others? I hope not, but I'm not sure. Can we find a balance when we have conflicting behaviors? Sometimes we need to change behavior (eg. tone down or refrain from using bad language), and other times we need to understand when no offense was intended, and try to accept and accommodate cultural differences.

Answering these questions to define our culture is very difficult. It is even harder to put them into written rules. I strongly believe that being inclusive is a mindset first. It is about wanting to be a good person to all other people. Once you have it in your mind that you want to make others feel respected and comfortable around you, you'll find that you'll be looking for ways to do so. The key is to be appreciative of our differences. If you show respect and sincerity and remain open to hearing differing opinions, we will automatically become more aware of how our actions affect people different from ourselves. We'll automatically become more inclusive and more diverse.

By the same token, being appreciative of how we are different also means you should be willing to give the benefit of the doubt in case you are offended. It's only through fostering an environment where it is safe to make mistakes and learn from each other that we can achieve diversity and inclusiveness in our community.

Last but not least, it also presents a tremendous opportunity to learn about new cultures. I hope to learn from people who are different than me and talk honestly about our differences. If you are one of these people, I hope to ask you questions respectfully to learn more about how your values differ, and would love to find out how you want to be treated.

I'll continue to think about how to best foster a culture of inclusivity and diversity, but I wanted to stop and listen first ...


Dave Scalera (not verified):

I think you are spot on in your thoughts. I think one huge challenge is not even knowing how the masses think about a specific issue because they aren't outspoken. In any given scenario, where some people might be offended about something, only a small percentage of people on either side of the "issue" are going to be outspoken. Well, at least we know how they feel. What about those who don't speak up but feel excluded? Eventually, they may just leave your group, organization, or company and you would never know why. It's also easy for some to say, "well don't get's that simple" unless of course you say something about that guy's cat...because that's an exception of course! Good topic of conversation.

catch (not verified):

For example, some people tend to be more concerned about the use of crude or sexual language than others.

I don't think this accurately describes where most of the complaints about language come from.

For example I've never seen anyone complain about 'fucking $something', or not in the context of discussions around diversity anyway.

I have seen people complain about '$something is my bitch'.

These are fundamentally different. You can call a woman a 'bitch', you might call a man a 'bitch' - in both cases that's a gendered slur/epithet that's derogatory to women.

Fucking is a sexually loaded term, but it's not gender-specific or a slur/epithet.

When complaints of sexism are reduced to 'being offended by bad language', that trivializes the complaints overall.

People are not responding to or getting offended by 'bad' language, but specifically sexist (or racist, homophobic, transphobic) language or behaviour.


I agree with you that there is a spectrum.

The words "fuck" and "bitch" are so commonplace in certain cultures that their shock value seems quite lost, especially when you are not targeting a particular person with them. But not all sexually charged slang words can be used that casually, even in a non-targeted way.

While I personally don't take offense when someone uses the word "fuck", I'd also be careful to assume that everyone is comfortable with that. I've met people who go to great lengths to avoid using the names of genitalia -- it doesn't have to be swear words that make some people uncomfortable.

For these reasons, I was using "sexual language" in the broad sense. Your comment is a helpful one though.

catch (not verified):

I'd also be careful to assume that everyone is comfortable with that. I've met people who go to great lengths to avoid using the names of genitalia.

I wouldn't claim everyone is OK with swearing, clearly some people are not.

However where people take offense and where most diversity in tech (and in general, I don't think tech is special except for the amount of time people spend online) discussions are centred on is around sexism, racism etc., it's not 'language' or even 'bad language' as an abstract category.

Also it's quite possible to be racist and/or misogynist while maintaining an appearance of politeness and respectability (i.e. without swearing at all). Those cases are a lot harder to point out/expose so they tend not to get the same attention. A lot of calls for 'civility' completely ignore that the majority of discrimination happens on entirely 'civil' terms (or if we don't assume good faith, some of those calling for civility want to continue civilly marginalizing people without having to acknowledge a reaction against it).

So while there is a spectrum, it's not just one, and the spectrum of what's considered bad language is the least important (I've certainly had raised eyebrows for my swearing when in the US so I know it exists, just don't think it's relevant here). Concentrating on specific incidents of sexist behaviour for now:

There is a spectrum of behaviour that is sexist, from mild/casual sexist behaviour/language, to stereotyping and discrimination, all the way to violent misogynistic threats. Most of us are on the left side of that spectrum and slip up sometimes, saw someone recently describe this as accidentally stepping on someone's toe which is a good analogy.

There is a spectrum of how people interpret identical behaviour as to whether/how sexist it is. i.e. some people won't even notice a particular comment or behaviour as sexist at all until it's pointed out (or even after), whereas others do due to familiarity/experience etc. Many of us are on the left side of that spectrum and miss things sometimes. To continue the toe analogy, wearing boots with steel toe caps vs. having a bruised toe because ten people stepped on it that week already.

There is a spectrum of reactions to being called out - from "I'm sorry" to "I'm sorry if you were offended" to "Stop overreacting" to DOXXing the person who called you out. This is often where things tend to go wrong in terms of the reactions of people who get called out. Often what happens is that rather than just apologising for stepping on someone's toe when it's pointed out, they'll go out of their way to explain how they didn't mean to step on the toe, or that the toe was too sensitive - try saying "I'm sorry if I stepped on your toe" and see what reaction you get.

Focusing on language as such is part of where there has been so much misunderstanding around recent incidents. I personally don't care if someone calls a man a 'pussy', but I do care if people pointing that out get accused of 'political correctness' - since whether intentionally used that way or not, 'political correctness' has a long history as a dog whistle - in that it trivializes complaints about very serious behaviour and attempts to invert power relationships by invoking censorship in situations where censorship does not apply. The comments on this post aren't the best place to get into that in depth, but this blog post covered it OK (with the caveat that the author of that post isn't that keen on it any more), or another post here on a similar theme.

Replying to rteijeiro's comment. This is absolutely not something that is 'out of our hands' - most of us will offend someone about something at some point, but you absolutely can control how you respond if it's pointed out to you.

Also if you see someone else getting called out and what they did looks minor, it's worth doing some research before jumping in, a lot of the discussion around the 'gittip crisis' was missing a lot of context and focusing on one or two interactions in isolation. Often when people complain about isolated statements being taken out of context or over-reactions, there is actually plenty of context there - just over time.


This is one of the best comments on my website in a long time. Thanks for articulating that so well, catch. Great leadership.

rteijeiro (not verified):

Thanks for your comment, catch. I completely agree with your points.

When I said that "It's out of our hands" (maybe I should say "It's out of my hands") I mean something like this:…

There will be a day when I will be speaking in a conference and I'll be pointed out because I said the word "crazy". Is that crazy?

I'll be afraid of speaking publicly because I'll never know when I'm offending someone. And, even if I apologize, he/she will be allowed to reject my apology (or consider it "bullshit" or "empty") and I'll be the offender forever.

Maybe the solution is to speak in binary, using only "Yes" or "No" (or 0 and 1 for techies) but then we will miss the "Grey Zone". That's what all this positive discrimination is doing, removing the people that live in the "Grey Zone".

I want to finish with this video that demonstrates that stereotypes are in our mind:

Sorry if I have offended someone with my words. It was not my intention.

catch (not verified):

Are you objecting to the idea of ableism and ableist language itself, or just the most commonly used/mildest words like 'crazy'?

When I was at school in the '80s and '90s people used to regularly use flid, cripple, and spastic as generic insults. That has slowly become less common, which is a good thing. Or are we just further down the slippery slope at this point?

Even with 'crazy', there's a difference between 'Drupal has a crazy number of modules available', and 'you must be fucking crazy if you use Wordpress' - it comes down to usage.

Similarly, the way that people who commit very bad crimes are often described as crazy or psycho in the media - where there's not necessarily any mental illness there, encourages the stigmatisation of people with mental illness as more likely to commit certain types of crime etc., and ignores all the other factors which might be more important in those cases.

I personally say something 'is crazy'/'that's crazy' fairly regularly in normal conversation (probably not in written English though), but if someone pointed out it was lazy and there are better/more descriptive words in those cases that'd be fine and they'd be right. And it wouldn't mean I'd be an 'offender forever'.

Greg (not verified):

Replace bitch with a racial slur and ask yourself if you would even publish this comment on your website. In our society, overt sexism is still the norm, while overt racism is not.

Racial slurs used to be so common, that they were often defended as 'part of the culture'. Sexism and Racism are cultural constructs, but they are not culture worth defending or respecting.

John_B (not verified):

No point in stigmatizing words. That is to some extent where this started. I hear young black men in London using the N word as a brotherly greeting. A confident woman (not my girlfriend) surprises me by telling me 'I love being called [the B word]'. I am old enough to remember when homosexuals enjoyed the word 'gay'; last week I heard a serious suggestion on the BBC that schools should impose sanctions on children who use the G word, because it is now seen by some as homophobic. The slipperiness of language, even more striking to those of us who trained as lexicographers, is surely obvious to all. Banning words (for example worrying about the P word, when it is defended by a non-native speaker of English in a context where native speakers were divided about its real meaning) cloaks rather than solves a problem. It risks taking a step towards the kind of society (of which Soviet Russia was said to have represented an extreme example) where a gulf between what one is allowed to say, and one's real views is accepted as the norm. This is no excuse for rudeness: complete freedom of speech (as of software) must be defended, and responsible and considerate use of that freedom encouraged.

catch (not verified):

All the examples you give are where the offensiveness of a word is defined by the context it's used in, and who's using it. Whether it's explicit reappropriation by the people who were targeted with the word originally, or emphasis/usage changing over time. None of that means that all words are fair game to use all the time without opprobrium.

On free speech, XKCD covered that argument pretty well:

Greg (not verified):

John, you're welcome to use any racist slurs you want and the government won't step in to stop you. And, there's always someone who tries to defend racism with "Free Speech!". I find this comic an extremely clear response to why Freedom of Speech does not excuse bigotry.

Yves Hanoulle (not verified):

For example I've never seen anyone complain about 'fucking $something', or not in the context of discussions around diversity anyway.

My milage differs.

As a non native English speaking person, for me saying something like "Fucking awesome" sounds less harsh as it is for native English speakers. I have told repeatedly that saying "fucking awesome" is not appropriate, by US, UK, India, Eastern-European people.

Jeff Walpole (not verified):

Great points. I think to be honest we will eventually have to pick which interests to be inclusive of and support when conflict arises because that is where values are tested and demonstrated. For now, we should all take a deep breath and enjoy the community we do have and respect each other.

rteijeiro (not verified):

I think it's getting out of our hands.

Internet is a huge online world that allows people to act as they want, not as they really are in the offline world.

Today I have read about this episode:…

A few weeks ago, this happened:…

And in DrupalCon Austin, I started this:…

Sorry but I can't explain (in english) how upset I feel after reading all this flames. It's really hard for a non-english speaker to argue anything even pro or against that. I'm even not talking about cultural differences. I'll leave that for another conversation.

Good luck with this, Dries. I know this is not the first time you have to deal with this issue. ;)

Ivan Boothe (not verified):

I think it's useful to take the discussion outside the realm of "offense," which can be debated, and to acknowledge that many comments involve actual emotional harm and threats of physical harm.

The reason using sexual objectification of women in tech presentations, using "booth babes" at conferences, or using "even your mom could do it" as a stand-in for "simple" isn't just because these things are offensive. It's because they're signifiers for a culture in which women are systematically not taken seriously, valued only for their physical attributes, and assumed not to be competent at the same level of men.

Saying things like "don't get offended" (what Dave said some might say) shows a lack of understanding at the very real emotional and physical violence that women experience, not only in the world in general but in tech communities in particular.

While I'd say "being appreciative of differences" is a good first step in committing to inclusion, it can't stop there. A company that says it is "welcoming" but relies on word of mouth from current employees and circulating job openings in the usual places will continue to get the usual candidates: white men. An inclusive workplace not only actively seeks to broaden its diversity through reaching out to nontraditional communities, but interrogates its own culture to see what might be consistently keeping some people out.

I was hoping to add some links to resources in my comment, but including so many links triggered the spam filter. So here's a link to the resources I was going to include in a Google document:…

BryanSD (not verified):

By the same token, being appreciative of how we are different also means you should be willing to give the benefit of the doubt in case you are offended. It's only through fostering an environment where it is safe to make mistakes and learn from each other that we can achieve diversity and inclusiveness in our community.

I am a firm believer that inclusivity and diversity is not fully achievable until the above is achieved first. If someone apologizes for offending someone or a party, makes an effort to change their behavior, yet is shown the door then all you have is a community that is less inclusive and less diverse.

Kristofer Tengstrom (not verified):

I run a small web firm where half the people are men and half are women. I personally fall into the category of someone who often uses "crude or sexual language" and fortunately so do the women. However, some of them are willing to take it further than others so what I do is simply adjust the way I talk depending on the person I'm talking with. It's easy to notice when someone is starting to get uncomfortable so then you learn gradually where their boundaries are. This way works really well for us because there's a fundamental sense of respect.

However, this only works in one-on-one talks or in groups where you know everyone. If there's someone in the group that you don't know or if you talk in public, I would suggest to take the safe route and avoid sexual jokes and stuff.

Based on this reasoning, my suggestion for a rule of thumb is that it's fine to be crude and sexual in your language as long as the people you're communicating with are fine with that too. If unsure, such as in public contexts, then don't do it.

One risk with this approach is that it will contribute to group segmentation, creating groups within the group, but that's pretty much unavoidable anyway I think.

John_B (not verified):

Politeness is desirable. Hurting the feelings of others is not desirable. Sometimes people are needlessly tactless, perhaps we all are sometimes. Worse still, some will justify their lack of good manners by drawing attention to their right of free speech, or the American Constitution or some such thing, as if these rights justify a failure to value the feelings of others.

However, attempting to legislate or impose sanctions in order to control those who might offend, and to protect the feelings of those who might be more easily offended than others (if that makes sense) is to embark on a dark and dangerous path. Inclusivity is, as you say, to be fostered, not enforced.

Mike Gifford (not verified):

Thanks Dries for starting this. Nice, constructive comment in the thread too. Clearly we want to find some balance that provides an inclusive community that supports a diverse range of users.

Open source software is totally dominated by white men. This is something that is changing, and Drupal is in many ways leading the way.

Giving folks the benefit of the doubt is important. But also making sure that they know that their actions can be offensive.

How do we achieve a balance? How do we see that folks still find the community fun? What level of tension is useful for a community?

I'd love to hear voices from women though in this thread (I don't think there have been thus far but I could be wrong).

Maria McDowell (not verified):

Dries, Thank You.

This is, I think, the heart of your post, a point with which I both agree and disagree:

I strongly believe that being inclusive is a mindset first. It is about wanting to be a good person to all other people. Once you have it in your mind that you want to make others feel respected and comfortable around you, you'll find that you'll be looking for ways to do so. The key is to be appreciative of our differences. If you show respect and sincerity and remain open to hearing differing opinions, we will automatically become more aware of how our actions affect people different from ourselves. We'll automatically become more inclusive and more diverse.

I agree that inclusivity is ultimately about a mindset. I might use the word 'attitude' or 'intention' as well. That we intentionally turn our minds towards respect is central to both giving and receiving respect. However, the required intentionality behind such a mindset is why I am not so ready to then describe this process as "automatic." An intentional mindset does lead us to be more easily aware of what might offend, or that we have offended unintentionally. Aristotle (yes, I am an academically trained ethicist who just happens to be employed in technology. Guess which pays?), calls this "habituation." We intentionally engage in behavior that then becomes more like habits, natural ways of relating to others, perhaps even (to undermine my own disagreement) automatic.

But this doesn't happen automatically. It is important to recognize that we don't just start this way. We learn it. We learn if from our families, friends, coworkers, society, culture, etc. And we unlearn it along the way as well. Intention implies awareness (that our words and actions might be an issue) and a will to change, which requires learning.

Rules are one way of learning. Rules exist to limit behavior, but can also serve as a means of learning that might not be available via other means. So, in the U.S., we had to outlaw segregation first, which for many (hardly all) has enabled the awareness of forms of racism that go much deeper than what the law recognizes. For others, it is the awareness that motivated the creation of laws which are themselves only the beginning. Laws are only a first step. They are a means to an end, not the end.

My point is that enforcing politically correct language or establishing formal diversity policies and practices is only meant as a beginning. It is for many the first step towards creating an awareness that there IS a problem, which if then accompanied by a will to address the problem, actually allows change. Notice the "if". This isn't automatic, it must be chosen.

As a woman, I call out sexist language when I hear it. I am not particularly offended by the initial comment since we live in a profoundly sexist culture and yes, the tech world is dominated by men who do not have to think about these things in the same way I do as a woman. I simply assume that we all have some learning to do. As a white woman, I am continually learning when it comes to racial issues. As the parent of someone who works as a disability activist (or is rapidly becoming one), I am constantly learning that my jocular use of "crazy" or "psycho" really is offensive to some. I can learn to be more precise in my language, though I grant that it is a total Pain in My Ass and doesn't seem as fun. But, because I love this person and want to be respectful, I learn and change.

I am angered however, when calling out such language or attitudes is ignored, dismissed or ridiculed. This indicates to me the lack of Dries's key point, the importance of a mindset oriented towards inclusiveness and diversity. It tells me that the person is not interested in learning. In this case, I am grateful for the presence of rules if only b/c I don't have to have work conversations or lunch conversations that constantly use analogies of sex with women to describe business transactions (yes, I have learned some interesting expressions that are utterly distasteful in their implication). At worst, rules are a necessary, protective tool for the vulnerable (the shy, the quite, the truly weak). At best, they are the springboard for learning and maturing.

I hope that rules serve to encourage the mindset Dries considers key to this conversations. I wish we could do without them, but alas, I see no evidence that we can't. However, they are hardly a goal in and of themselves. They should be an interim step towards creating awareness of problems, orienting us towards the kind of people we want to be, and giving us a starting point for how to be that kind of person.

Grant Kruger (not verified):

Conferences with a strong code of conduct and deliberate outreach have the most diversity, in my experience. It is not just about language. Drupal has an inflated sense of gender diversity that is quickly revealed to be similar to the rest of the tech world simply by counting gender diversity in programmer talks versus designer talks or even PM talks. It helps us and hurts us because I believe we pat ourselves on the backs too quickly when we should be saying that it's been steady at 20% women for years, meaning we're making no progress on that front, but instead we say we're ahead of the curve. Here's where the strong code of conduct and outreach should come in, but instead I don't believe we're doing much to actively try to change our diversity. The only time I see a shift is when a conference takes on language and other issues that relate to attendee safety, inclusiveness, welcomeness, etc. For example, Open Source Bridge is an annual tech conference here in Portland that has far more diversity than DrupalCon. This is because they push for greater representation from marginalized groups through outreach, greater representation amongst speakers, etc, and because they have a strong code of conduct They might be worth talking to, especially since the DA are here in town and Aquia and others have offices here too. They have been doing this as part of their mission for 6 years and could both teach us much and tell us that they still have more to do. This, like web security, is a process, not a solution. Even so, the results are literally easy to see at any OSB.