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The Passive Voice is Killing Me

The passive voice, and its usage in reporting of car crashes, has been coming up often here lately (here and here).

This morning’s New York Times features another usage, in a particularly unsettling story. Now, I should first point out the Times, in its sort of detached mandarin role as omnipotent cultural arbiter, has been historically lousy with these constructions (e.g., “A reporter was told” instead of “I heard”). And, unfortunately, this has long been a staple of journalism; note Wolcott Gibbs’ brilliant take-down of the torturous prose that used to be called “Luce-speak” (at Time and elsewhere), collected in Dwight MacDonald’s sadly out-of-print collection Parodies: “Sad-eyed last month was nimble, middle-sized Life-President Clair Maxwell…”

In any case, here’s how today’s Times story began:

A 28-year-old pregnant woman was killed and a second woman was seriously injured on Friday afternoon when a driver, apparently intoxicated and following the women as they walked down a Midtown Manhattan street, lost control of a supermarket maintenance van, which jumped onto the sidewalk and slammed into them, the police and witnesses said.

I wondered about a different way to construct the opening line:

An apparently intoxicated driver killed a 28-year-old pregnant woman and seriously injured a second when he lost control of his van and slammed into them, the police and witnesses said.

This needs tinkering, admittedly, but the point is clear: In the first case, the question of agency is put down less to the driver than to the van, which mysteriously jumped the curb, leading to the method by which the woman “was killed.” The second point brings the point home more quickly, and I think leaves the reader feeling differently.

Some have raised the question of legal responsibility, and how a reporter may lean on the passive voice in trying to cover themselves against libel (or maybe it’s a gesture toward some sensitivity toward the driver; but what about the victim?). But I see nothing here that refutes the essential point: The driver killed the woman. This sentence does not use the criminal/legal distinction of “murder,” it is simply stating the obvious: Whether it was intentional or not, a killing took place. Unless the vehicle itself had a mechanical flaw, it cannot be directly held responsible (and even in that case a driver is ultimately responsible for maintaining his vehicle).

This leads to a second point; the use of the word “accident” throughout the story. That this word still appears so casually in stories involving intoxicated drivers rather astonishes me. Yes, it may have been “unintentional” or “unexpected,” but given what we know about what alcohol does to driving performance, and given that alcohol use while driving is tantamount to criminal negligence (or even murder, in a recent case), should the same word — accident — really be used to describe a drunk driver killing someone; and, say, the person who backed into me in a suburban New Jersey strip mall a month ago?

The reason epidemiologists dislike the word is that drunk driving deaths are clearly not accidental; they represent the largest cause of vehicular death in this country, and in most of the world; they are not random, they happen predominantly at certain times and to certain classes of drivers, in sharp and predictable patterns. The word “accident” in this story of the tragic death of the woman in Manhattan implies it was just part of the capricious wheel of fate, and not a clearly identified threat to public health. There’s a reason we don’t call plagues “accidents” — people want solutions found, measures taken. The recent crane collapses brought new legislation, panels of inquiry, etc.; what will this death bring?

I am frankly not sure why we are so afraid to assign responsibility in car crashes. Is it that we view traffic violations in general as “folk crimes,” not quite “real” crimes? Is it the “there for the grace of God” argument, that it may someday be us behind the wheel of “a car that strikes a pedestrian”? I sometimes hear the argument made, ‘well that driver will suffer the rest of his life for what he did’; maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But that’s not provable, not quantifiable. Prison time is. I find it interesting that people who commit negligent homicide while driving dangerously often walk, even as our jails are filled up with people who were simply trying to improve their lot in life — see this Times (!) story on how people busted on victimless immigration charges are filling up our federal jails).

Now, back to the passive voice. This itself is an ambiguous and sometimes misunderstood thing, as this interesting post notes. And you might argue that these are merely semantic issues. But how else do we frame and interpret the world in a meaningful, transmittable way except through language? The issue here is: What does language do? How does the use of the passive construction in the Times article change the way we feel about the incident?

A few years back, a researcher at UCLA named Nancy Henley had subjects in a trial read news accounts that reported crimes such as rape in both a passive and an active voice. As a summary in Psychology Today noted, “When men read rape and battery stories written in the passive voice, they attributed less blame to the perpetrator — and less harm to the victim — than for the active-voice versions.”

I’m not sure if a similar study has been done for the reporting of crashes, particularly involving pedestrians and/or cyclists (but I’d like to see one done) — which may be viewed as “out” groups in our vehicle heavy society. But it seems rather common-sense that the more that language distances the person who committed a crime and the crime itself, we will only naturally begin to attribute less responsibility to that person — perhaps even to the point where even the victim’s culpability is raised (and, eerily enough in the case of today’s news story, a report just came in via radio that the driver was sexual harassing the woman before then running her down). It may even shift us away from thinking that a crime was committed at all.

In his classic essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell noted that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Language changes how we feel about something; even what we remember about events, as a study by Elizabeth Loftus once found; people who viewed a clip of a car crash gave higher speed estimates after the fact depending on the words that were used (e.g, “smashed,” “struck” etc.). And of course it’s no surprise that the passive voice is an almost de facto occurrence when someone is trying to shift blame away from themselves: Ronald Reagan’s famous quip “mistakes were made.”

Which reminds me of a passage from the excellent book Mistakes Were Made, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. They write: ” A friend returning from a day in traffic school told us that as participants went around the room, a miraculous coincidence occurred: Not one of them was responsible for breaking the law. They all had justifications for why they were speeding, had ignored a stop sign, ran a red light, or made an illegal U-turn. He became so dismayed by the litany of flimsy excuses that, when his turn came, he was embarrassed to give in to the same impulse. He said, ‘I didn’t get stop at a stop sign. I was entirely wrong and I got caught.’ There was a moment’s silence, and then the room erupted in cheers for his candor.”

Through “cognitive dissonance,” we all manage to tell ourselves stories that we somehow weren’t responsible for stupid decisions we made. The media would do better than to turn this psychological flaw into a staple of its reporting.

This entry was posted on Saturday, March 28th, 2009 at 5:34 pm and is filed under Etc., Traffic Culture, Traffic Enforcement, Traffic safety, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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