The passive voice is the penultimate weapon of denial


OPINION:This clever device is a linguistic shield against giving truthful answers, writes MARIE MURRAY.

THE PASSIVE voice is a grammatical device that has gained momentum in recent times. It is useful. It distances the speaker from whatever is said. It implies that what is being spoken about is not personally the speaker’s province, but that he or she is simply making a comment on it, in the way that an outside observer, rather than an active participant, would.

The passive voice is especially useful where apologies are required: personal apologies for what people have done personally. Because instead of having to say, “I’m sorry”, the passive voice allows a culprit to say “It is regrettable”. Instead of saying “I made a mistake” the abstract term “mistakes happened” can be evoked.

We are living in times in which a lot of things are “regrettable”, during which a lot of mistakes have “happened”. It is regrettable that so many “mistakes were made”. But it is even more regrettable that those who made the mistakes are hiding behind the passive voice.

The passive voice is the penultimate weapon of denial. It is ideal as armour against admissions of responsibility for one’s actions. It is a psychological defence against reality. It is a linguistic shield against giving truthful answers to reasonable questions asked by ordinary citizens who are entitled to an explanation as to why their lives have changed.

The passive voice expands culpability from the personal to the communal, in a way that forces innocent people to accept blame for what they did not do.

After all if “mistakes happened”, if no one person is responsible, then everyone must be responsible. Repetition reinforces this faulty premise until it lays the fault at those who are not at fault. It cajoles them into believing that they colluded in something that had nothing to do with them. It is magnificently Machiavellian. It works. So far it is working well.

It is time to speak out against the passive voice. It is time to insist that it is not used when people are asked questions about their personal responsibility or the responsibility of the institutions they represent. Because, of all the duplicitous linguistic devices designed to deny civil rights to citizens, the passive voice is supreme.

Repetition of unreality is a powerful denial of reality. Repetition weakens resistance, dismantles resolve and assumes a veracity against which there is little defence. The most courageous and loquacious may try to challenge it, but they are defeated by the impenetrability of the passive voice. There is little an interviewer can do when confronted by the careful courtesy of those who skilfully, with intonations of appropriate regret, admit how regrettable it is that mistakes happened. Not only that, but the message they convey is that if the interviewers had any decency, national pride or charitable concern for others, they would “move on”, “draw a line in the sand”, “be patriotic” and help to rescue their country from the consequences of these regrettable impersonal mistakes that just happened. This is clever. When individuals hear often enough that “we are all to blame” they come to believe they are part of the problem and must provide the solution. If you make people believe that they are to blame for something they did not do, then you can make them pay for what you have convinced them that they did.

The passive voice allows those who will not admit their negligence, incompetence, corruption or collusion, to state with genuine disingenuousness, that “mistakes were made” as if they were the recipients of ill-fate rather than personally responsible for their actions.

It is time to bring back the personal pronoun. Will somebody please say “I” and then we might all be able to salvage something.

Clinical psychologist and author Marie Murray is the director of student counselling services in UCD