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.