Slave Raiding Ants and Language Challenges for Technical Editing

In their 1998 Technical Communication Quarterly article “Masters, Slaves, and Infant Mortality: Language Challenges for Technical Editing,” Graves and Graves explore the often overlooked impact of potentially offensive metaphors in explaining scientific and technical information. Beginning their article with examples of an infant mortality metaphor for non-working devices and the master-slave metaphor from engineering, the article argues that such metaphors often shape values and perceptions, even (and especially) when the terms seem to be merely transparent and technical. They write:

Rather than claim that such metaphors should be ruthlessly hunted down and eradicated from all facets of language use, we would like to step back from these examples for a minute to explore the two larger issues: to what extent does technical language encode social meaning and what are the implications of such encoding for technical communication (392).

Over in the science world, a similar discussion is occurring over the term “slave raiding ants” (or “slave-making ants”), the colloquial term for polyergus breviceps, an ant species that steals ants from other colonies to serve as workers (often referred to as “slaves”). In 2007, Joan M. Herbers argued that the slave raiding ant terminology has prompted unfavorable and unwarranted reactions from audiences:

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, and on many others I have been asked what my studies of ants tell us about the human condition (the answer to the latter is easy: nothing).

Using the work of Toni Morrison, Herbers suggests that racially loaded metaphors may do harm to the cause of science, and she suggests an alternative phrasing, the “pirate ant”:

 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.”

Herbers followed up her argument with a 2008 piece further arguing the dangers of racially-charged metaphors. Last fall, on his really cool bug blog MYRMECOS, Alex Wild responds to Herber’s arguments by saying that the term slave-raiding ant is fairly accurate in describing the ants’ behavior and very clear to novice readers:

I run a web site that is visited by non-specialists. I need to employ terminology the public can understand, even if inexact. If we can borrow a better analogy than slavery (sweat-shops? kidnapping?) then I’m all for it. But until a more accurate parallel surfaces I have no problem calling the behavior of acquiring a labor force via brood theft slavery.

Wild also claims that pirate ant is an ineffective substitute (though Wild doesn’t mention it, references to piracy could also be offensive if they conjure images of modern day piracy acts instead of Pirates of the Caribbean-style shenanigans). I ran this dilemma by my technical editing students this week to get their take (we also discussed the potential offensiveness and possible alternatives surrounding the terms “kamikaze sperm” and “financial tsunami“). They had varying opinions on the offensiveness of the terminology, but as remedies they suggested using terms like “worker raid” and “stolen workers” or “social parasitism” to describe the ant behavior, or “brainwashing ants”, “bourgeois ants,” and “Borg ants” to describe the species, though many felt these metaphors and terms were also inexact.

Whatever your conclusions, the debate is a helpful reminder that technical writers and editors should remain conscious of language use and its potential effect on audiences. As Graves and Graves write:

Editors, writers, and researchers of technical communication are in a unique position to use their expertise not only to produce top quality documents, but also to examine and raise for discussion those linguistic constructions and conventions that portray reality in questionable ways (412).

It’s exciting to see that members of the sciences are having similar discussions.


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