April 23, 2024

hide and seek

rows of lab benches in an abandoned classroom
photo caption: a lab classroom in an abandoned building. i don’t remember much about this room, except that the sinks had little traps for the mercury that students poured down them. simpler times!

Science lab is the first place I remember learning about passive voice. We learned to write these papers with complete neutrality. We observed our subjects with dispassionate remove. The reports needed to reflect that. “The materials were weighed on the scale.” “The subject was observed flying in a north-south direction.” “The results were found to be significant.”

In some ways, this distance is a rule for science taken seriously. Experiments should be repeatable, ones that anyone else can perform. Assuming the person follows your methods, they should get the same results as you did. In the scientific world, the observer is unimportant. You don’t want to get in the way of what you’re observing.

Heisenberg’s passive voice

But we know that isn’t really possible. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle says that the act of looking at an electron changes its path. Our observation has changed what we’ve studied. The same is true outside the lab, as well. We can’t remove ourselves from the world that we’re studying. We’re part of the world. The world we live in, and the world we constructed, has made us who we are.

Passive voice removes the actor from the act. Consider the sentence, “Black people were enslaved in america for 286 years.” Who is missing? What happens to the sentence when we restore its active voice? “White people enslaved Black people in america for 286 years.”

This remove can take other forms, as well. We use the passive voice in business all the time, especially for unpopular decisions. “The funds were used inappropriately.” “Using sick leave without a doctor’s note is not allowed.”

Take this sentence from a recent article about the upcoming Olympic games. “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” The International Olympic Committee made a decision to uphold a ban on athlete protests while on the podium. Where do people go to protest the decision? The sentence isn’t clear. The IOC can communicate this ban as if it came from on high. Their responsibility for the decision is hidden just off camera. The omission itself becomes an admission.

The media uses a similar feint of objectivity in its reports on police brutality. Nick Martin at The New Republic describes this phenomenon in the incredibly-headlined article, “Tear Gas Doesn’t Deploy Itself.” Martin quotes the New York Times, sharing early coverage of the day Minneapolis Police killed George Floyd: “A man who died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by an officer’s knee.” Martin asks, “Will the officer’s knee be brought to justice?” Think about the depths of remove in a statement that barely holds the knee at fault. What was the knee even doing there??

activating the responsibility

Active voice is worth doing. When it describes a decision, it centers the decision-maker. It brings to light It puts the ownership of the action back on the actor. When we use active voice, we do more than make the sentence feel interesting. We put ourselves, our perspective, our interpretation, out in the open.

I use a plain language text editor to highlight when I use passive voice. When I rewrite a sentence into active voice, I make it more dynamic. I also make it more accountable. We tell a more complete story when we resist the distance of passive voice. The electron doesn’t move by itself.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space