The Usefulness of the Passive Voice

“The passive voice should be avoided,” we are told by those who use the thing they warn against to warn us of things.   The passive voice states things in a neutral sounding way — as if they just happened, not as if somebody affirmatively did the thing being passively described.   First year law school students are taught that there is only one situation in which it is desirable to use the passive voice, making an argument to defend a guilty client.   

If your client has without question done wrong, use the passive voice to describe the wrongdoing.  He stabbed somebody, and this is a fact you can’t argue away; to maintain your credibility as his defender you must admit it.  So use the passive voice, in passing, to admit this damaging fact while defending him.   Law students are instructed, in a case like this, to bury the unavoidable admission in the middle of a paragraph otherwise favorable to your client, and phrase it in the passive voice.   “…the victim was stabbed with my client’s knife…” reads much better than “admittedly, my client repeatedly stabbed the victim”.

The passive voice is used reflexively in such situations by ordinary citizens, it is ubiquitous in non-apologies.  It phrases a reality in a way that puts no emphasis on who did what, places no blame or burden on anyone for their actions.   Refer to the hurtful incident as “that thing that happened”, a misunderstanding, not something anyone did to anyone.   Shit happens, asshole!

Jeremy Scahill, in today’s Intercepted podcast, illustrating longtime US callousness about killing civilians anywhere, played a clip of anti-fascist Trump resister former Secretary of State Madeline Albright (then US Ambassador to the UN) talking about the dire US supported sanctions against Iraq.   The sanctions, started under recently lionized president George H.W. Bush and continued for 13 years by Bill Clinton and Bush II, until after the second U.S. invasion of Iraq, had disastrous effects on the people of Iraq, though they had little effect on the rulers and the wealthiest Iraqis.

Wikipedia:  High rates of malnutrition, lack of medical supplies, and diseases from lack of clean water were reported during sanctions.[27] In 2001, the chairman of the Iraqi Medical Association’s scientific committee sent a plea to the BMJ to help it raise awareness of the disastrous effects the sanctions were having on the Iraqi healthcare system.[28]   

It appears undisputed that per capita income of Iraqis fell by more than 80% during the first few years of sanctions, and that most Iraqis were rationed 1,000 calories of food a day, good for weight loss, bad for overall health, particularly the health of growing children.  There was also a high incidence of diarrhea in children, never a good indicator of a child’s prospects. [1]

In answer to Lesley Stahl’s “loaded” question about the sanctions on a May 12, 1996 segment of CBS’s 60 Minutes (a question that used the passive voice) then Ambassador Albright gave a reply she quickly regretted giving on national TV. 

Stahl: We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, are… is the price worth it?

Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it.

Of course, it turns out we were dealing with master propagandist Saddam Hussein who shamelessly, grossly inflated the child death totals.  It is likely that less than half that number of children died, probably less than a quarter of that inflated total, perhaps no more than a tenth of that horrific number.   Notice that the previous sentence nonchalantly uses the passive voice, the children simply “died”, nobody did anything to them.  

It is likely that as a result of the UN Security Council sanctions, backed by US military support, even less than fifty thousand Iraqi children were killed.   To put it more clearly: we probably killed far fewer than 50,000 Iraqi children, directly or indirectly.   Other estimates and three later UN studies put the number much, much lower, even suggesting that no additional children were killed by the crippling sanctions.  

Besides, everybody knows Saddam was a fucking liar!    Madeline Albright said she’d been ambushed by Lesley Stahl (who won an Emmy for that segment) and used to spread Saddam’s unconscionable propaganda.

Say the UN sanctions enforced by US military might had killed a mere thousand Iraqi babies.   That discounted price would be worth it, wouldn’t it?   Especially in light of the great benefits achieved by the sanctions.   Believe that and I’ll tell you who you voted for in 2016 (either candidate, actually).

I made the mistake of listening in on some of the president’s rambling, predictable State of the Union speech last night.   What shocked me was the continual roar of the crowd in Congress.   The roar was continuous, a wave as irresistible as the frenzied cheering at one of Trump’s exciting campaign rallies.   I was half-waiting for a chant of “Seig Heil!” to break out, because that’s how ecstatic the crowd sounded, rising to roar their approval of even the most dubious claims the practiced liar was making.  

Then the president modulated his voice into its most conciliatory sounding tones to announce the record number of women in the US workforce, including the record number of women who had been elected to Congress (most of them running hard against his policies and him personally).  The crowd of government officials went wild.  The newly elected women, most of them dressed in white and sitting in a bloc, rose to acknowledge the indisputable fact that women, who the president stated work in 58% of the new jobs created in America last year, now comprise nearly 23% of the federal legislature.

Then, as the women stood, it happened.  The chant began, as robustly as at the most passionate Trump rally in the shattered heart of Trump country.   Our elected officials began a full-throated chant of “USA! USA!” and I felt the vomit rising in my throat, had to shut that shit off.   As I walked I began to wonder how many Venezuelan children are going to have to die so that we can have freedom on the march again?


[1]     Wikipedia:     Shortly after the sanctions were imposed, the Iraqi government developed a system of free food rations consisting of 1000 calories per person/day or 40% of the daily requirements, on which an estimated 60% of the population relied for a vital part of their sustenance. With the introduction of the Oil-for-Food Programme in 1997, this situation gradually improved. In May 2000 a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) survey noted that almost half the children under 5 years suffered from diarrhoea, in a country where the population is marked by its youth, with 45% being under 14 years of age in 2000. Power shortages, lack of spare parts and insufficient technical know-how lead to the breakdown of many modern facilities.[29] The per capita income in Iraq dropped from $3510 in 1989 to $450 in 1996, heavily influenced by the rapid devaluation of the Iraqi dinar.[29]

Iraq had been one of the few countries in the Middle East that invested in women’s education. But this situation changed from the late eighties on with increasing militarisation and a declining economic situation. Consequently, the economic hardships and war casualties in the last decades have increased the number of women-headed households and working women.[29]

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