This is something I should be able to move on from, but I can’t, and so here we are.

I was looking at software and noticed a plugin that supported “inclusive language” — based on this list of problematic words. The context of the list is communication about computers and software, i.e., developers telling other developers how to do things.

The offending words are perhaps not the ones you would expect from the word “inclusive”:

simply, obviously, basically, of course, clearly, just, everyone knows, however, easy

Now, I will not defend use of these words on stylistic grounds. But I cannot accept that these words actually function to exclude people.

These are words that communicate the speaker’s epistemic stance towards the claim being made. That is, they indicate how comfortable the speaker is making the claim, or how easy s/he expects an instruction to be.

  1. CMYK simply uses a different set of numbers to represent colors.
  2. Obviously, sharing your private key is a bad idea.
  3. You just replace the spaces with tabs.

In sentence (1), “simply” is communicating that the change between the two color systems is nothing profound or abstract. This helps the reader to understand that the change between the two systems is trivial, nothing to lose sleep over.

In sentence (2), “obviously” is marking a claim that is indeed obvious to anyone with the slightest awareness of public key cryptography. The traditional criticism of “obviously” is that if the claim is obvious, there is no need to mark it as obvious; whereas if the claim is not obvious, it is rude to assume that it should be. Obviously I disagree.

To someone in the know, “obviously” marks an uncontroversial statement. Now, if that were the sole purpose of the word, then I agree that it would be better to spin something out like, “For purposes of the present discussion I will take it for granted that…” — though that’s not going to be stylistically appropriate in every context.

But “obviously” communicates to the person who is new to the topic as well. It communicates that the claim is uncontroversial. That is to say, if you are learning about public key cryptography for the first time, you need to now that sharing your private key is a bad idea. That’s important information to have. (I wish every discipline had a list of propositions that were obvious within the context of the discipline; it would save a lot of time!)

The original post says this about “obviously”:

This is possibly the most common offender. Not everything is as obvious as you might think it is. That fact that you said it should be might make me feel extra-dumb at a vulnerable moment. And what if it is obvious to me? That word doesn’t help me. Sentences usually work better with that word omitted.

Now, without context, it’s difficult to know why the assumption is that the reader feels “extra-dumb at a vulnerable moment.” It’s asking a lot of anyone’s usage to assume that any potential member of the audience is in a vulnerable moment. I much prefer to assume that any reader of mine is curious to learn something new, and has enough self-awareness to realize that some things that are obvious to other people are not obvious to him/her, and that that’s okay—that, in fact, it’s part of the learning process.

Finally, in sentence (3) “just” again communicates a simple procedure. “Is this a difficult conversion?” “No, you just replace the spaces with tabs.” Once more, it’s a way to signal that the procedure outlined is not a complex one, but a relatively simple one.

Now, I will bet that I don’t have any readers for whom all of the following will be “just” tasks.

  • You just do a distributional analysis.
  • You just pass a custom function to the sort pointer.
  • You just go to the Il Göç Edaresi.

Nevertheless, within the context of learning a new topic, it remains informative to know whether, within a certain community of practice, a given procedure is easy or difficult.

Some years ago, I ran across instructions that said something to the effect of, “You just install it from NPM.” That wasn’t a “just” statement for my current level of knowledge. But I knew then what to google, and I new that “installing something from NPM” was a skill I would be expected to have. Useful information, not threatening—except to my vanity, if my self-image were that fragile.

I don’t want to imply that no one is allowed to have a bad day, or that learning can’t be a discouraging process. But the door price of learning is admitting that you don’t know something beforehand. If that’s personally threatening, then that’s really the first thing that needs to be dealt with. The solution is certainly not for everyone else to flatten out our epistemic evaluation of every proposition we utter, so as to prevent people from learning that certain things are… obvious.