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Thoughts on Renaming Master

GitHub announced several days ago their intention to rename the master branch on the main GitHub interface. This stirred up some thoughts I had about this and renaming “offensive” technological terms altogether, so I decided to make a post.

Disclaimer

Let’s get things straight first. I respect the rights of all people to be who they are, and support diversity efforts in technology. Please don’t go around claiming I hold extremist views as a result of the very narrowly-addressed opinion here. Difficult issues are nuanced. Taking a one-sided approach to everything is rarely the right choice.

My Opinion

The change is to rename the master branch commonly used as the source of truth on GitHub repositories to main. I’ve heard (but not confirmed) that upstream Git is also debating to do the same.

My opinion: This specific change is utterly pointless, and further highlights a trend to pay lip service to public opinion without taking any meaningful action (in informal terms, pretending to be “woke”).

To be clear, I am referring to the specific change of renaming master to main. I certainly agree with renaming “master/slave” terms in tech, as the connotation is pretty much indisputable there. The renaming of “blacklist” and “whitelist” can also be argued, although the terms were never of racial origin.

However, the term master alone has no racial connotations in isolation see below. In this context, the word refers to something that is a leader – the code on the master branch, for example, is often the bleeding edge of the codebase, the “ground truth”. The word has the exact same connotation here as it does in, for example, “Master Leo” or “Master of Science”.

Should we change the rank names of all martial arts instructors that use this word? Should my degree be renamed?

EDIT 2020-07-17: I have been told that the original naming of the master branch in Git derives indirectly from the “master” and “slave” terminologies and thus stand corrected. The following section still applies, however. Link to proof: https://mail.gnome.org/archives/desktop-devel-list/2019-May/msg00066.html

PR Fluff

I concede that this is a very specific and nitpicky case. In realistic terms, this change will have nearly no impact, besides requiring us to retrain our muscle memory to type one word instead of another. What does bother me though, is prioritization of these things above more meaningful action. It’s easy to rename things and feel good about it, but realistically, what does that do for disadvantaged communities?

My opinion is always that education is the greatest tool a person can have for upward mobility (blog post on this later maybe), and it’s especially evident in the world of tech, where some high schools have barely existent CS programs while others are teaching their students data structures and algorithms their junior year of high school. I would like companies to focus more on these efforts instead of trying to look make themselves good to the public. You can do both, of course, but efforts that have actual impact should be the emphasis.

The best thing you can do for someone is to teach them.