Drones and passivity

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People keep going on about the passive voice and revealing that they don't really know much about what it is. I have commented on this so often that some readers have written to beg me to stop. To the sensitive souls who just couldn't bear to be told one more time about a case of this sort: stop reading now. Use some self-discipline. Do not go on. You do not want to hear about what Daniel Swift, a teacher of English composition at Skidmore College, said about drones in Harper's Magazine recently. Really you don't. Stop reading now. Click to another page. Find something nice by Mark Liberman to read.

Now, for those few of you who stayed with me (and I did warn you), here is a quote from Daniel Swift's article "Drone Knowns and Drone Unknowns":

I teach in the English department at a college in upstate New York, which every now and then means teaching freshman comp, a kind of crash course on writing coherent papers. On the first or second day of classes, I ask everyone to think up examples of the passive voice. Sighing and rolling their eyes, the students offer a few by rote: "The ball was thrown." "The window was broken." "Lunch was eaten." And why, class, should we avoid this pernicious habit when we write our papers? Because — more sighing and eye rolling — passive voice hides who is doing the thing, or, more technically, because it obscures agency. We must pay attention to who is performing the action, I tell the class.

The press coverage of Predator drones routinely and systematically conceals agency — obscuring, if you'll forgive the pun, one very specific agency. For all the facts given in the news — the plane's Sicilian base, the missile's weight and length and breadth and cost — one simple detail is left out: Who is in charge of the bombing?

  • "The Predators have launched 145 strikes . . ." (Wired)
  • "Convoy bombed by drone . . ." (The Telegraph)
  • "The officials said the Predator fired on the convoy Thursday." (AP)

Such awkward syntax is common to coverage of drones: these do not, by definition, fire by act of will. Coverage that specifies who is running the drone strikes — the Guardian, for instance, called it "the CIA-operated drone programme" — share the same turns of phrase, and more than this, the same basic information about the raids.

Why does it matter who is doing what, so long as bad guys are getting killed? Well, what law is applied to the program depends upon the agent. As Alston explains, covert intelligence activity — the kind of activity traditionally pursued by the CIA — "is governed by a strict legal regime beginning with the need for a ‘presidential finding’ declaring that the activity is necessary to ‘support identifiable foreign policy objectives’ and is ‘important to the national security of the United States.’" Military activities, on the other hand, require neither a presidential finding nor congressional review:

‘Military’ action can thus be initiated much more readily and will be subject to little if any specific congressional review, assuming that it does not cross the threshold of engagement in hostilities. On the other hand, covert action, while requiring specific approval and notification, is not then subject to the sort of constraints, either territorially or jurisdictionally that would apply to a military operation. . . . Viewed in this light, it is not difficult to see the attractions from the perspective of the executive of a ‘mixed’ regime.

Passive voice, and its attendant obscurity, turn out to be very useful.

It may be useful, Daniel, but in two-thirds of your examples it's not there. The Predators have launched 145 strikes, the example cited from Wired, is an active clause. The Telegraph headline Convoy bombed by drone is indeed a bare passive clause, but it does not in syntactic terms obscure agency, since it includes a passive complement (or by-phrase) denoting the agent. The drone is claimed to have bombed the convoy. That may be an odd way to put things given that the drone was being piloted by some kid in a control room thousands of miles away in America, but that's not an issue that can be approached through a critique of the grammar. And finally, the Washington Post example The officials said the Predator fired on the convoy Thursday has two clauses, both of them active. The officials claim that the Predator did the firing. That may be misleading, or even false, but the passive voice is not implicated here.

Swift gets 1 out of 3 on identifying passive clauses. That's 33%, which is a fail in the grading system I am required to use here at the University of Edinburgh — it makes staggeringly generous use of the scale, and counts even 40% as some kind of marginal pass, but 33% will not cut it.

I know I have told you this on Language Log before; in fact the catalog of posts on passive clauses now has 62 entries (and this one will make it 63). But no matter how many times we tell it, new grammar pontificators come along and once again trot out (i) their bias against the passive construction, (ii) their completely baseless allegations concerning what's wrong with passives, and (iii) clear evidence that they do not know their passive from a hole in the ground.

[Drone strikes forced closure of the comments section on this post. Language Log denies any responsibility for this. An agency-acknowledging tip of the hat to Ron Irving, who pointed out Swift's article to me.]

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