I despise the passive voice in legal writing. Most of the time, it takes up unnecessary space and makes the writing pretty boring. So I try to eliminate it. “The complaint was filed by plaintiff’s counsel before the limitations period had expired” becomes “Plaintiff’s counsel timely filed the complaint.” So much better, right?
I will acknowledge there is a time and place for the passive voice. “Mr. Smith was attacked at 3 a.m.” might make sense if there is no identified assailant and the writer wants the focus to be on Mr. Smith. And yes, in fiction, the passive voice can lend a fun element of mystery or stylistic flavor (e.g., “The body was found at dusk.”).
But the choice between passive and active voice is not only grammatical or stylistic—it can also be political. Thanks to the power of Facebook to revive old content, I recently read a short article in Middlebury Magazine about a 2012 presentation by educator and cultural theorist Jackson Katz. Katz, outlining the way language shapes our understanding of gender violence, shed light on the passive voice’s sinister applications. He pointed out that the conversation about gender violence, cast in the passive voice, generally leaves men out:
“We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls…. So you can see how the use of the passive voice has a political effect. [It] shifts the focus off of men and boys and onto girls and women. Even the term ‘violence against women’ is problematic. It’s a passive construction; there’s no active agent in the sentence. It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at that term ‘violence against women,’ nobody is doing it to them. It just happens to them…. Men aren’t even a part of it!”
According to Katz, the aggressor should be the subject of the sentence and of the conversation. When we formulate our discussions about gender violence without that focus, the perpetrators slide out of view.
The article felt revelatory to me, but it isn’t exactly news that language has political elements. For the past few years, I’ve especially enjoyed analyzing the linguistic machinations of public apologies. (Not to mention that, of course, “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” and “Mistakes were made.”*) After thinking through Katz’s insights, I’m even more attuned to both what we say and how we say it.
*For more on language as it relates to the concept of deniability, check out Charles Baxter, Dysfunctional Narratives, or “Mistakes Were Made,” 20 Ploughshares 67-82 (No 2-3, Fall 1994).