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5 Minute Changemaker: Insist on Language That Holds Us Accountable

Written by Marsha Rakestraw | 2 Comments | Published on March 31, 2016 | Filed under Humane Connection
The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Humane Education website at http://humaneeducation.org/blog/2016/03/31/5-minute-changemaker-insist-language-holds-accountable/
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Fingers holding label that says "truth"

by Marsha Rakestraw

“Mistakes were made….”
“Four rioters were killed yesterday….”
“Taxes were slashed….”
“10 billion land animals were slaughtered….”

We see and hear use of the passive voice all the time. And sometimes it’s appropriate. But too often it becomes a tool for avoiding responsibility or clouding the specifics of human participation.

Why do the particular words we use matter? Studies show that “linguistic framing” can shape our perceptions about who’s responsible and who’s empowered. “Subtle differences in linguistic descriptions can change how people construe what happened, attribute blame, and dole out punishment.”

Jackson Katz, in his TEDx talk about the responsibility of men in working to stop violence against women, asks, “How does the focus of our society go so quickly from “John beat Mary” to “Mary is a battered woman,” with John nowhere in the picture?

In a 2013 Boston Globe article, Anat Shenker-Osorio highlighted the language choices of a speech by President Obama on inequality and how “… even as it attempts to put forth deliberate remedies to inequality, its language undermines the notion that we are confronting a problem humans made … and suggests that the problem is out of human hands.”

As Shenkerk-Osorio said, “This is the danger when we suggest that no one is to blame. … Unless we describe problems as having been made by people, it’s reasonable to conclude they cannot be fixed by people. … Until we can talk about who did what to get us here, in ways that extend to our very sentence structure, it will be hard to put forth a compelling case that we can change course.”

Really, it isn’t specifically the use of passive voice that’s the culprit. As linguistics professor Dr. Geoffrey Pullum notes, the passive voice doesn’t necessarily mean “a sentence that is squirrely about agency.” What’s key is naming who or what is responsible – who took the action – including when it’s ourselves.

As humane educators and changemakers it’s important for us to accept responsibility for our actions. It’s also important that we help others learn to pay attention, think critically, and ask questions when the media and people in power use language that suppresses or avoids attributing responsibility for actions that cause harm.

“Mistakes were made … ” by whom? It matters who polluted the river, who lied, who caused suffering.

Not because we must always assign blame. But because we have to know what happened and who was responsible so that we can work toward positive solutions.

And so that we as humans can know that it’s okay to make mistakes, and that owning up to our mistakes and bad choices is much more valued  (and valuable) than pretending things just happen.

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About Marsha Rakestraw

Marsha is IHE's Director of E-learning, Education Resources, and Alumni Relations and part of the online course faculty. More

Contact Marsha View all articles by Marsha Rakestraw


Stephanie says:

I appreciated this article. Can you talk a bit more about knowing who is responsible, and what techniques and ways of approaching a humane education might take for 1. understanding that an individual is part of the system; and then 2. Avoidance of scapegoating that person (Rene Girard’s work comes in here very well…)? I could work on a response, but I bet you’ve thought about it a bit, too, and would love to hear from you.
Warmly, Stephanie

Stephanie, so glad you liked the post.

This is a complex issue, so I’ll just make a couple comments here.

One focus of humane education is on the duality of personal choices/responsibility and the impact of systems. We encourage people to pay attention to both their daily choices and to the systems they support and rely on.

When we’re buying a piece of clothing, for example, we hold some responsibility in the choice we make — the impacts on people, animals, and the earth of buying that particular piece of clothing. Likewise, we can also work for positive change in the systems that are involved in the production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of that piece of clothing.

Specific to holding other people accountable: if the CEO of a clothing company, for example, makes a public statement that ignores or suppresses their company’s collusion in causing harm (such as sweatshop conditions or the amount of waste fast, cheap clothing creates, or dyes poisoning waterways), we can respectfully call for them to acknowledge their responsibility and take positive action. But we shouldn’t stop there; as you so eloquently mention, we also must work for systemic change that does more good and less harm. And we can do that in a variety of ways, from writing letters and supporting legislation, to starting or supporting small businesses that reflect those values we want, and so on.

I’d love to hear more of your thoughts.