18 October 2017

Passive Voice and Crime

This is a response to a Tweet that showed up in my Twitter stream a couple of days ago. We often speak about crime in the passive voice. And there's a thing about passive voice that will be clear to anyone who has learned Pali or Sanskrit - the passive voice has no subject. Which is why I prefer agent/patient to subject/object when discussing grammar.

In the active voice, a subject does an action to an object. In the passive voice an action is done by an agent to an patient. But we can and do use the passive voice without a subject, i.e. with just an action and a patient.

In terms of crime we can say things like:
"The woman was raped."
"A man was mugged."
"A child was run over."
"The official was bribed."
"The house was burgled"
This is a pretty common way of talking about crime. What's missing in all of these statement is the agent of the action: "... by a rapist", "... by a mugger", "... by the dangerous driver", "... by the developer", "... by a thief". And so on. Just because the verb is in the passive voice, does not mean that the action is not carried out by someone.

Similarly, there is a trend for people who have responsibility to skirt it by saying bullshit phrases like "mistakes were made". In which case we can always ask "By whom were the mistakes made?" Just because they shift to the passive voice, does not mean that we are forced to abandon the notion of a grammatical (and real) agent of the action.

Use of the passive voice without an agent is a problem to the extent that it shifts the conversational emphasis onto grammatical patient, i.e. the victim, the location, or the nature of the crime, while obscuring the agent of the action. Of course crimes happen to us, against our will, so the passive voice is designed for exactly these situations. But if we leave off the perpetrator of the crime, we may create an unfair situation.

Why? Because when we comprehend actions we typically understand them in terms of agents with motivations. And why is this? It's because the archetype for a willed action is our own experience of turning our head to say we've had enough milk. Or our first experience of grabbing something and pulling it closer. The archetypes in other words are our own willed actions.

So if we only mention the patient of the criminal action, then we leave a conceptual gap in which the victim (potentially) becomes the agent: i.e. we blame the victim. Someone has to make the action happen, and if the actual agent is out of the picture, then we look to the only other participant. Crime is emotive, and perhaps no crime more so than rape. If someone was raped, then yes, I think it is vital that we insist that it was an action carried out by someone.

In rape, resistance often makes things worse for example, because the assailant may become more violent and it both intensifies and prolongs the experience. Each case is different, but no woman ever wants to be raped, or "asks for it". That much has to be clear. And it ought to be clear in how we talk about it. But its not justice to hold a whole section of society to blame for the crimes of individuals. This is an important principle of our justice system: collective punishment is not just. I cannot be blamed or punished for crimes in which I am not explicitly involved in committing. I don't accept that just being a man makes me complicit in violence. I've been the victim of more violence than most people I know. Quite a bit of that was from women or girls, by the way.

With that said, I do want to continue to think more about the use of passive voice verbs in the way we speak of crimes generally. For example, with respect to the example of bribery, you may have thought, "hang on, the official who was bribed actively committed a crime by accepting the bribe." Yes, they did. The bribe was accepted by the official. Interesting, this is the passive voice, but in discussing bribery always seems to specify an agent. The verb is passive in this sentence, but it is clear who is doing what. So this makes it an interesting one to think about. For every crime there is a criminal.

It's important to specify the agent of the criminal action, especially in the case of groups who tend to be oppressed or disempowered. The story is not, to take a topical example, that some actor was raped, but that an actor was raped by Harvey Weinstein (allegedly). The criminal becomes the focus rather than the victim of the crime. Our justice system is skewed towards punishing perpetrators and so we have to identify them, or we consider that justice has not been served. A more restorative justice system would go about it differently and would require us to focus on the victims. 

A load of crime words are used in both the past active and past passive voice "he raped..." and "she was raped...". Similarly with murdered, robbed etc. We almost always talk about crimes in the past - unless we are in the process of being mugged or whatever.

Of course this is more difficult when the criminal is as yet unknown or as yet not proven guilty (as in Weinstein's case). But the thing about the passive voice is that it cries out to be qualified "by....". Which is why one amusing way to identify a verb in the passive voice is to see if following it with "by zombies" still makes sense. e.g.

  • The man was being pursued [by zombies]. Makes sense, verb is passive. 
  • The man pursued [by zombies] his dog. Doesn't make sense, verb is active. 

The person on twitter who inspired this little rant, was insistent that perpetrators should particularly be identified as men. To me this smacks of the old "all men a rapists" bullshit. A man might have raped a woman, and yes, it is usually a man, but actually the number of men who are rapists is pretty small. I have known many hundreds of men, and I know of one who was accused of rape. I'm not sure that anything is gained by emphasising the gender of criminals. In the case of violence, men are very much more likely to be the victims of violence than women are.

In any case, people sometimes say we should strive to eliminate the passive voice. When I looked at a few news headlines, I did not see much use of the passive voice. Many crime stories do use the active voice and of course are therefore forced to attribute the crime to someone. So maybe the prejudice against the passive voice is having an effect. In which case the original complaint might have overstated the problem.

On the other hand because we attribute crimes to someone, and are often lazy about the adverb allegedly, some people are splattered with guilt by association. The "no smoke without fire" fallacy. I have seen no evidence that anyone thinks that Weistein did not rape, molest, and pester women, though he has yet to be charged by the police, let alone appear in court to be judged. He is being tried in the media and punishment has already commenced.

On the other hand, when the police raided Cliff Richard's house, and tipped off the media so that they could film it, the man's reputation was severely damaged by the allegations. A crime was more or less deliberately attributed to him, when in fact, as far as anyone knows, he is innocent (false accusation is also a crime). Same with Paul Gambaccini, who was caught up in the same furore, but was always innocent. Accusations of child sex-abuse are extremely damaging, especially to someone who makes their living in the public eye. And that is balanced against the damage that sex-offenders cause if left unchecked (as they have been for decades in the entertainment industry).

So, even if we were to switch entirely to using the active voice, the way we talk and think about crime is not a simple matter. We usually have less than perfect knowledge and people are unreliable witnesses (both passively and actively).

There is nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice. Especially when things happen to us against our will, the passive voice is exactly what we need to express that directly. If someone punched me in the face we could look at it in different ways. If I wanted you to empathise with me and perhaps comfort me, I might say "I was punched in the face". The focus is on me. But if I want you to get angry I might say "Phil punched me in the face." Now I am directing your attention to Phil. If you report this to your friend you (unconsciously) make similar determinations, i.e. who is the focus? What emotion am I trying to elicit? Who is to blame? And so on. A good deal of subtly is available to us by adding extra words, stress, and facial expressions to the mix.

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