Friday, March 24, 2006

Words are our business

This essay from the Chronicle of Higher Education reminds me why I love the Academy --

It's by a scientist who studies ants. (Unlike C. S. Lewis, she's not appalled or terrified by their collective or female-dominated behavior. Anyway, she doesn't seem to be.) She's been studying ants, and she's received some bad comments from people she's talked to about some of the language she and other scientists use when they study these ants.

I have been repeatedly surprised by reactions to my use of the term "slavemaking" to define behavior and of "slave" to define the status of the captured ants in their captors' nests. On several occasions, individuals objected (usually after public talks, interviews with reporters, and scientific presentations, and usually anonymously) to the slave metaphor....

I can hear the Right-Wing Reactionaries -- steam shoots out of their ears, how dare we object to this, how silly, how ridiculous, it's JUST LANGUAGE, besides, that's what the ants are doing, how dare we not want to describe EXACTLY what the ants are doing, in the name of PC bull-CRAP,

AND so on.

But not our scientist, Joan Herbers, by the way.

Dr. Herbers ponders the problem. She thinks it over. She, like the academics I love so much, considers the nuances of the problem and consults sources. (God, I love the Academy. What do we do when we want answers? Research! Ha!)

I did not invent this jargon, but I have certainly used it without thinking. Dulosis is the technical term, derived from the Greek doulos, or slave, and these terms have been in use to describe entomological phenomena for some 200 years (check out The Oxford English Dictionary). Given its long history of usage, and by no less august a figure than Charles Darwin himself, what is the problem?

I posed that question to a colleague who specializes in rhetorical studies of (human) slave narratives from the 18th and 19th centuries. She responded crisply: "We should be able to study ants without being reminded of race, for crying out loud," and then introduced me to Toni Morrison's essay collection Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Morrison suggests that an analysis of American literature is incomplete unless it confronts the essential truth that our writers have been immersed in a racialized society.

Her discussion of how inattention to racial constructs has hampered literary criticism led me to consider the problem of how our use of loaded jargon might affect the scientific enterprise itself.

I, too, became uneasy with the slavery metaphor, and concluded that it might even be affecting my discipline's struggle to recruit scientists of color. That we have failed to attract young blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans to science careers is indisputable, and has varying causes. Now I must confront the uncomfortable truth that our very jargon may be part of the problem....

Does Dr. Herbers stop here? She does not. (Picture me bouncing in joy at this point.) No, if she stopped here, it would be interesting, but a failure.

That is, whether or not "slaveholding" as a word is offensive and destructive may, in fact, be irrelevant -- if it is accurate. If it, that is, describes the universe as the universe actually exists.

But that's a big if, isn't it?

Dr. Herbers returns to the issue. She considers whether, in fact, ants, when they take other ants and force them into labor, are doing what humans do when humans make other humans into slaves: whether there might not, that is, be some better word for what ants are doing: some word that both would not harm our society and would more accurately describe what's happening in the ant world:

[I]n fact [these terms] are not particularly accurate. Unlike human slaves, captive worker ants cannot breed, nor are they sold to other captors. Instead, the predatory species must repeatedly raid colonies to replenish its work force; indeed, voracious colonies can overexploit their captives and engender their own demise when there is no one left to do the work.

I propose, then, that we adopt a pirate metaphor to replace the slavery jargon. Human pirates engage in behavior much like the ants I study: They attack ships to steal cargo, usually inflicting considerable mortality among the defending crew. We can therefore write about pirate ants, captive ants, raiding parties, and booty. Since we scientists love jargon, I further propose that we call this "leistic" behavior, from the Greek leistos for "pirate."

As Herbers concludes:

Scientists like to think their work is unhampered by human conventions, an illusion fostered by their ignorance of the work of philosophers, historians, linguists, and rhetoricians who study the scientific enterprise. I now understand that those delusions of objectivity can hamper our ability to further the progress to which we are passionately devoted. Scientists use language, and so must take responsibility for its rhetorical impact.

I'm teaching History of the English Language here in Arkansas -- HEL class, as my students cheerily call it -- and every semester along about week 14 we get to the same point, the Sexist Language Rant.

Of course, if I've done my job right, this rant goes down without a wince, since I've already given them the Socialist Rant and the Classicist Rant and the How Can You Possibly Believe That Good Grammar is Moral Rant? about fifty times already by this point -- but anyway. Almost always I'll have a few fellas and maybe one Good Woman who want to argue with me that it doesn't make any differencee whether we say "Every scientist deserves his Ph. D." and that everyone knows that "mankind" includes girls too and why must feminists insist on grubbing up the language?

When it was such a nice language, you know, before we got our sticky fingers on it?

It's what we all instinctively fear, you know -- females getting their hands on our tidy language.

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