ICANN publishes its Woke Manifesto. Here’s my hot take

ICANN’s antics rarely surprise me after close to a quarter-century of coverage, but today it’s published what I can only describe as its “Woke Manifesto” and while reading through it this afternoon I pretty much peeled my uvula raw and ragged, alternating as I did between howls of outrage and uncontrollable fits of incredulous laughter.

On the latest step of its descent into solipsistic pomposity, Org has released its Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit, an interactive web page and associated documents and survey templates designed to help the ICANN community’s various constituencies become more diverse, equitable and inclusive.

“It is designed to empower our community groups in assessing, measuring, and promoting diversity within and across their membership,” ICANN wrote in its introduction, attributed to outgoing policy VP David Olive.

A laudable goal in theory, but in practice what ICANN has come up with is often hilarious, poorly sourced, badly edited, baffling, hypocritical, self-contradictory, and condescending to both the people it wants to include and the people it perceives are already over-included. In parts, sadly, it’s borderline misandrist and maybe a little bit accidentally racist.

The Manifesto is the result of ICANN’s work to implement the recommendations of the Final Report (pdf) of the Cross Community Working Group on Accountability, the most-recent phase of one of ICANN’s interminable navel-gazing exercises.

Recommendation 1.6 of that report states:

ICANN staff should provide support and tools for the SO/AC/Groups to assist them in assessing their diversity in an appropriate manner. ICANN should also identify staff or community resources that can assist SO/ACs or other components of the community with diversity-related activities and strategies.

Or does it? If we believe the new Manifesto, Rec 1.6 actually states:

ICANN staff should provide support and tools for the SO/AC/groups to assist them in assessing their diversity in an appropriate manner. ICANN should also identify staff or community resources that can assist SO/ACs or other components of the community with diversity-related activities and strategies.D&I requires equity to succeed.

The emphasis in that second pull-quote is mine. The lack of a space after the period before the last sentence is ICANN’s.

It looks like at some point, possibly quite recently, ICANN has sneaked in the reference to “equity”.

If you’re triggered by the DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) abbreviation, best look away now. The Manifesto contains all the other zeitgeisty buzz-words you probably also hate.

Microaggressions? Check. Privilege? Check. Identity? Check. Intersectionality? Check. Unconscious bias? Check. Psychological safety? Check.

An easily overlooked footnote seems to explain why “equity” has made its way into the document:

In this toolkit we refer to “diversity” and “inclusion,” but “equity” is also a significant concept to understand. Equity refers to fairness and justice, recognizing that we do not all start from the same place and must therefore make adjustments to imbalances; for example promoting the inclusion of people from marginalized/underrepresented populations. It is distinguished from equality, which means providing the same to all.

I take no position on whether this is a good or bad way to tackle inequality of outcome, if it exists, at ICANN, but let’s be honest, this is just another way of describing what has been known as “positive discrimination” or “affirmative action” in other contexts.

But while affirmative action usually refers to issues of race in North America, such as in the ongoing debate about university admission policies, ICANN’s Manifesto is notable for containing no direct references to skin color whatsoever.

ICANN’s “7 key elements of diversity”, which come from the CCWG-Accountability’s report, are: geographical/regional representation, language, gender, age, physical disability, diverse skills, and stakeholder group or constituency.

Let’s look at what the Manifesto says about some of these identity categories. Yes, I’m going there.

“You were so worried you came from Iran”

Possibly the most egregiously condescending and baffling part of the Manifesto is “Ideas for indivdual action” (pdf) (the misspelling of “individual” is in the original, in the title, on the cover page), which offers suggested language to avoid offending people on the basis of gender, age, disability, or geography.

I’ve no idea to whom this document is addressed (I infer it’s able-bodied, Anglophone men), but it seems ICANN thinks it has a problem with people referring to East Asian community members as “Orientals”. Because apparently it’s the 1950s. In the same breath, it suggests that “whitelist” — a term commonly used in the security industry to refer to lists of explicitly permitted domains — is as offensive as “Chinaman”.

It’s worth noting that the word has been used repeatedly by ICANN itself, including quite recently. Under October 2023 terms, you can’t even apply to be an accredited registrar without agreeing to “whitelist” ICANN’s domains.

In a glorious example of accidental misogyny, the document (six years in the making) later says that people should avoid using forms of address such as “Mrs” or “Ms” because: “This language implies that having a disability is not an ordinary aspect of being human”.

The document is all over the place on issues of gender, on some pages directly contradicting ICANN’s own current practices and on others internally contradicting itself.

At one point, it says “there is no need to mention gender, i.e. saying ‘a female lawyer’ diminishes the professional status of that person”. This from the organization that put out this press release celebrating its two “female leaders”, last year.

At another point, it says we should use “Ombudsperson” instead of “Ombudsman”, while ICANN itself recently made the switch to “Ombuds” instead.

The document is also confused about whether biological reality exists. It tells us that we should accept that “that we are all biased by virtue of our biology” and a couple pages later admonishes against terms such as “biologically male” because “These terms imply that gender is a biological and binary fact that can only be changed through surgery — if at all”.

The most jaw-dropping gender-related moment comes when the document attempts to explain the concept of “privilege” and offers some suggestions as to how those who possess it may overcome it to increase the inclusiveness of their communities.

I swear I’m not making this quote up:

If you have male privilege: Hold back, and allow female community members to speak before you do. If they do speak and are not acknowledged, call this out and give credit for their input.

ICANN wants to make “Ladies first” official doctrine? Perhaps it is the 1950s.

While I don’t doubt there are some women in the ICANN community who would whoop with delight at the chance of automatically getting first dibs at the mic, I know there are many others who will find the suggestion that men should give them special treatment, and subsequently pat them on the head for their contributions, deeply offensive.

“I hear you’re a racist now, Father”

It’s not just gender and age where the Manifesto seems to trip over its own desire to virtue signal without thinking through whether what it’s actually saying is internally consistent.

We’re told to avoid “Asking people of a different appearance where they are from” and a few pages later to “Show an interest in other people’s cultures and backgrounds, ask questions with sincere and respectful curiosity”.

How, ICANN, how?! How can I show an interest in this new friend’s culture if I’m not allowed to ask him where he’s from? Am I only supposed to show an interest in his culture if he shares my “appearance”. Can I only talk to people of the same race? Is that what you want, ICANN?!

We’re talking largely about ICANN meetings here, remember. People from over 100 countries on every continent flock into a drab, windowless conference center three times a year. It’s the most natural thing in the world, unwinding at an after-hours cocktail reception, to ask somebody where they’re from.

If, in the hotel bar after eight hours of patiently not interrupting anybody you think you might not fully intersect with, somebody asks you “Where are you from?”, regardless of whether you share common visual characteristics, chances are it’s because your lanyard has flipped over and they’re asking the name of your employer in order to quickly triage business opportunities.

Speaking as somebody who was an immigrant in the US for the best part of a decade, I know it can be irritating after the hundredth time you’re asked your nationality, but I never found it to be, as ICANN would have us believe, an “aggression”, micro or otherwise.

“I’m Disabled!”

The document defines a microaggression as “the everyday messages we send to other people through our language and behavior that cause them to feel devalued, slighted, discouraged or excluded”. We’re told: “What makes microaggressions offensive isn’t the exact words or actions but, instead, the underlying meaning that reveals bias”.

The first example ICANN gives of a microaggression?

A weak handshake with insincere smile.

I find this hugely offensive on a personal level.

My lived experience is as an effete Englishman with a congenitally pathetic handshake, also suffering from the effects of decades of underfunded NHS dentistry and still recovering from an ischemic stroke that rendered my hand-shaking hand about as strong as a sloth’s yawn.

There’s nothing I find more macroaggressive at an ICANN meeting — apart from perhaps a French woman I barely know attempting to kiss me on the cheek — than an American with a $5,000 suit and teeth the color of a Grand Wizard’s hood trying to tear my arm off at the hip when he or she moves to greet me.

But apparently, under ICANN’s rules, the combination of my disability and nationality makes me the bigot. Thanks ICANN, I’m going to feel really psychologically safe at my next meeting.

“What exactly does IT stand for?”

On a professional level, what really boils my piss is this directive, which appears under a section entitled “Use respectful language”:

Avoid jargon: Minimize your use of jargon, shorthand and acronyms that may not be understood by newcomers or people with different experience and skillsets

I totally agree, of course. It’s long since past the point that even some ICANN community veterans often have no clue what ICANN is talking about without a quick google or reference to a glossary.

So why in the Jiminy Cricket is ICANN introducing this package of Orwellian social guidance with the sentence “I am thrilled to announce the launch of ICANN’s Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit, a pivotal resource to support the implementation of the Work Stream 2 (WS2) recommendations.”

Work Stream 2? Work Stream 2 of what? The blog post doesn’t say, and you have to get several clicks deep into the Manifesto itself before you’ll find a reference to, or link to, the CCWG report.

Who is this aimed at? Insiders. Nobody else could possibly understand this stuff.

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