Mark Steyn uses the passive to avoid passivity

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Following up on my post "Rhetorical testosterone and analytical hallucinations" (7/1/2010), Linda Seebach sent a link to a column in which Mark Steyn complained about president Obama's "passivity" ("Obama's lazy tribute to Daniel Pearl", 5/21/2010):

Like a lot of guys who've been told they're brilliant one time too often, President Obama gets a little lazy, and doesn't always choose his words with care. And so it was that he came to say a few words about Daniel Pearl, upon signing the "Daniel Pearl Press Freedom Act." Pearl was decapitated on video by jihadist Muslims in Karachi on Feb. 1, 2002. That's how I'd put it. This is what the president of the United States said:

"Obviously, the loss of Daniel Pearl was one of those moments that captured the world's imagination because it reminded us of how valuable a free press is."

Now Obama's off the prompter, when his silver-tongued rhetoric invariably turns to sludge. But he's talking about a dead man here, a guy murdered in public for all the world to see. Furthermore, the deceased's family is standing all around him. And, even for a busy president, it's the work of moments to come up with a sentence that would be respectful, moving and true. Indeed, for Obama, it's the work of seconds, because he has a taxpayer-funded staff sitting around all day with nothing to do but provide him with that sentence.

Instead, he delivered the one above, which in its clumsiness and insipidness is most revealing. First of all, note the passivity: "The loss of Daniel Pearl." He wasn't "lost." He was kidnapped and beheaded. He was murdered on a snuff video. He was specifically targeted, seized as a trophy, a high-value scalp. And the circumstances of his "loss" merit some vigor in the prose. Yet Obama can muster none.

As Linda notes "the passage hovers right on the brink of tipping over from passivity as a behavioral trait to passive as a linguistic category". But the phrase "the loss of Daniel Pearl" doesn't even contain a verb, much less a passive one. And the  phrase that Steyn prefers, due to its lack of passivity, is a passive sentence: "Pearl was decapitated on video by jihadist Muslims in Karachi on Feb. 1, 2002."

It's worth looking more closely at what's going on here. Here's a bit more context, from the "Remarks by the President at the Signing of the Freedom of the Press Act", 5/17/2010:

All around the world there are enormously courageous journalists and bloggers who, at great risk to themselves, are trying to shine a light on the critical issues that the people of their country face; who are the frontlines against tyranny and oppression. And obviously the loss of Daniel Pearl was one of those moments that captured the world’s imagination because it reminded us of how valuable a free press is, and it reminded us that there are those who would go to any length in order to silence journalists around the world.

In my opinion, "the loss of Daniel Pearl" is certainly an insipid way to describe what happened on Feb. 1, 2002 in Karachi. A stronger phrase that could have been substituted directly is "the brutal murder of Daniel Pearl" — and it's easy to think of others.

Why did Obama (or his speechwriters) decide go with the wimpy "loss of Daniel Pearl" instead?  Steyn thinks that it was a political choice: that Obama "reflexively … lapses into sentimental one-worldism", which led him to omit mention of the agents and motives as well as to gloss over the nature of the crime.

But it seems equally possible to me that it was simple euphemistic habit. People often use "loss" in place of "death", much less "murder"; or talk about someone having "passed on" or "left us" rather than "died".  And there was another possible reason to leave out the rest of the gory details. As Mark Steyn argues later in his column, Daniel Pearl's assassination

… was nothing to do with "freedom of the press." By the standards of the Muslim world, Pakistan has a free-ish and very lively press. The problem is that some 80 percent of its people wish to live under the most extreme form of Sharia, and many of its youth are exported around the world in advance of that aim. The man convicted of Pearl's murder was Omar Sheikh, a British subject, a London School of Economics student, and, like many jihadists from Osama to the Pantybomber, a monument to the peculiar burdens of a non-deprived childhood in the Muslim world. The man who actually did the deed was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who confessed in March 2007: "I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi."

Daniel Pearl was a journalist, but his execution was not an attempt to stop him from writing the truth or to dissuade others from doing so. Rather, as Steyn says, "the story did get out; the severed head is the message; the only misconception is that that's a misconception".

"H.R. 3714 – the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act of 2009", according to the official summary,

Amends the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 to expand the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices to include:
(1) a description of the status of freedom of the press in each country reviewed in the report;
(2) identification of countries in which there were violations of freedom of the press; and
(3) in countries where there are particularly severe violations of freedom of the press, whether such governments participate in or condone such violations and the actions such governments have taken to preserve the safety and independence of the media and ensure the prosecution of individuals who attack or murder journalists.

Thus the bill was about evaluating the role of governments in violating or protecting press freedom, and not about responses to terrorists, Islamist or otherwise.

Still, "the loss of Daniel Pearl" was a weak phrase. "The brutal murder of Daniel Pearl" would have been a stronger one. "The brutal murder of Daniel Pearl by Khalid Sheik Mohammed" adds an explicit agent, though it still doesn't identify the religious ideology that motivated him. None of these phrases is either "active" or "passive" in the grammatical sense, though the last one is not far from the passive-voice sentence "Daniel Pearl was brutally murdered by Khalid Sheik Mohammed". What Mark Steyn thinks that the president should have said, "[Daniel] Pearl was decapitated on video by jihadist Muslims in Karachi on Feb. 1, 2002", is another passive-voice sentence.

Re-framing one of those sentences in the active voice — e.g. "Jihadist Muslims decapitated Daniel Pearl on video in Karachi on Feb. 1, 2002" — wouldn't make it any stronger or more forceful. It wouldn't move it any further away from "passivity", in the sense that Mark Steyn used that word. All it would do is to change the focus, so that the sentence is no longer (so easily construed as being) about Daniel Pearl.

Mark Steyn's linguistic argument strikes me as entirely valid. Whether for political reasons or just out of euphemistic habit, Barack Obama chose a rather insipid way of referring to Daniel Pearl's beheading. And Steyn is also right, I think, to observe that the decision to name a press-freedom bill for Daniel Pearl doesn't directly engage the ideology that motivated his murder, and therefore made it inappropriate (or at least unnecessary) for Obama to name the murderers or their motives.

And although Linda thinks Steyn  "hovers on the brink" of citing passivity as a grammatical category, in fact he doesn't do this. Nor does he bring gender stereotypes into the discussion.

In contrast, Paul J.J. Payack and Kathleen Parker are unreflecting victims of a deeply confused alignment of completely unrelated oppositions: vivid vs. insipid ways of using language; active vs. passive voice in sentence construction; clarity vs. obscurity about agency, responsibility, and motives; and male vs. female sex.


  1. peter said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

    Contrary to what Steyn says, Pearl was indeed "lost": there was a period after his disapperance when no one, other than his kidnappers, knew where he was, or if he was still alive (he was for a time, we later learnt), or what his fate was or would be. Arguably it was this event – Pearl's disappearance, which was very widely publicised, and which occupied much media attention before his fate was publicly known – rather than the revelation of his subsequent beheading, that President Obama is referring to in his statement about a moment when the world's imagination was captured.

    [(myl) Perhaps your native language is not English? It would be a real WTF moment, I think, to hear the phrase "the loss of so-and-so" used to refer to a period of time when so-and-so couldn't be found. I'd be willing to bet a substantial sum that no English-language press outlet used that phrase to refer to the fact of Daniel Pearl being missing, or in reference to any other missing-persons search.

    Looking in the current news, I find the headline "The loss of civil rights advocate William L. Taylor". Needless to say, it's an obituary, not a missing-persons story.

    Similar phrases can be used to refer to the loss of players from a sports team due to injury or other events, but for someone who simply can't be found for a while? I don't think so.]

  2. peter said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 6:07 pm

    In other words, perhaps Obama was using the word "lost" in its literal sense, rather than the metaphorical sense that Steyn (and yourself) are giving it.

    [(myl) Not a chance. Check out web references to phrases like "the loss of their child". "Loss" in such phrases is always a euphemism for death. If Daniel Pearl had turned up safe and sound, there's no way anyone would refer to the time when he was missing by saying that "the loss of Daniel Pearl was one of those moments that captured the world's imagination".]

  3. nonpoptheorist said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

    At first glance I felt the word, "murder," or a variant should have been placed there. But placing that sentence in its full body of text we have to consider, "All around the world there are enormously courageous journalists and bloggers who, at great risk to themselves, are trying to shine a light on the critical issues that the people of their country face; who are the frontlines against tyranny and oppression." Here, we could see that if the speech was given to an audience solely comprised of those "courageous journalists and bloggers," it may be more acceptable given the way it is. A live speech with the murdered journalists family around him demanded a register more emotional and damning.

  4. Jon Weinberg said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

    It's off the point, but the fact that Khalid Sheik Mohammed (initially, under torture) confessed to the murder of Daniel Pearl isn't especially probative of whether he did it. KSM confessed to many many things, a fair number of which he almost certainly didn't do.

  5. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 8:06 pm

    Perhaps I'm the only one who sees it this way, but the murder of Daniel Pearl and the loss of Daniel Pearl are two different things. The first is something that happened to Daniel Pearl, perpetrated by those who murdered him; the second is something that happened to his family and friends, and to some extent, given the wide coverage and popular knowledge of Pearl's story, something that happened to us. That's not an argument that Obama *should* have said one thing or the other, just something I think is worthy of note.

  6. Ken C. said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

    In round 2, Obama takes Steyn's advice, and says "Pearl was decapitated on video by jihadist Muslims"; Steyn will then respond: "Decapitated" is a such a euphemistic, pointy-headed, airy-fairy word; a non-muslim-sympathizer would say "Pearl's head was hacked off in a bloody spew". And how dare Obama be so specific about just which Muslims did it?

    [(myl) You may be right to suggest that nothing Obama could have said or done in that context would have won Mark Steyn's approval. Steyn is certainly a political partisan, and there's a list of negative memes out there that pretty well cover the space of possibilities: out-of-touch professor vs. charismatic demagogue; Obambi vs. thuggish Chicago pol; etc.

    But Steyn's basic linguistic point in this column remains valid, however he might have reacted in some hypothetically different situation. "The loss of so-and-so" is a euphemistic and thus insipid way to choose to refer to someone's death; and (as Steyn's discussion and common sense show us) this choice is independent of choices between passive vs. active voice, clarity vs. obscurity about agency, or stereotypically male vs. female communication styles.]

  7. MJ said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 11:03 pm

    I wonder if (given the preceding sentence–journalists who risk their lives, etc.) the speechwriter or Obama started out with a thought along the lines of the loss to the world of Daniel Pearl as journalist but then changed direction and ended up conflating that sentiment with the moment of his death, for which "loss" is, in my view, a very odd choice.

  8. Bill Walderman said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 11:34 pm

    Apparently, Daniel Pearl's family was standing by when Obama referred to Daniel Pearl's death as a "loss." Maybe in that setting "loss" was a gentler, more humane way to describe Daniel Pearl's death than "brutal murder."

    [(myl) Yes, that's what I meant by "euphemism". However, if you read his father's 2/3/2009 WSJ op-edl, "Daniel Pearl and the normalization of evil", I think you'll be able to reject the hypothesis that euphemism was necessary or appropriate in this case, at least from the perspective of Daniel Pearl's parents.]

  9. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 12:15 am

    It seems to me that in most of the instances of the use of "passive" that are condemned on Language Log, what the writer or speaker means is "impersonal." There is a reason for this confusion: the passive voice is what is most often used in English (in preference to the active with "one" as the subject) for the kind of impersonal constructions for which French and German use on/man (on parle anglais, man spricht englisch), and Spanish and Italian use the subjectless reflexive (se habla inglés, si parla inglese): English [is] spoken. Steyn (whoever he is), at least, wrote "passivity" and not "passive voice."

    [(myl) This is an aspect of the "clarity about agency" dimension — though again, impersonal constructions allow the author to describe agency in some periphrastic way, while non-impersonal active constructions can be chosen so as to obscure agency.]

  10. Doug said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 12:47 am

    I'm with Bill Walderman. In my brand of English (Australian), when speaking of a death in front of the family, euphemisms such as 'loss' are preferred, especially where the death was particularly brutal and nasty. I'm surprised that others don' see/feel this. Just put yourself in the position of the speaker, standing in front of (perhaps facing, even looking at) the family; would you really say 'brutally murdered', or even (shudder) 'kidnapped and brutally beheaded'? We all know what happened, do we really need it rubbed in our faces? Do the family?

    [(myl) As I wrote, this is a plausible reason for Obama's choice of a euphemistic (and thus insipid) phrase. But it's not relevant to the current discussion, which simply uses Steyn's discussion of this example to illustrate the fact that relative strength or vividness of expression, "passivity" as opposed to verbal outrage, etc., should not be identified with the choice of active or passive voice.]

  11. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 1:50 am

    I'd tend to agree with Doug and Bill. "Brutal murder" would have felt unnecessarily confrontational. It's the sort of rhetoric I'd have expected to come out of the Bush administration.

  12. Joyce Melton said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 2:01 am

    I think Steyn took a cheap shot for partisan reasons. With Pearl's family standing right there, it wasn't the time for rhetorical stunting. The speech probably could have been better but what Steyn complains about is NOT what was wrong with it.

    [(myl) The current discussion, though, is not about right or wrong, but about vivid vs. insipid. Sometimes (though perhaps not then) insipid is the contextually appropriate choice, but that doesn't turn it into vivid.]

  13. Colin Reid said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 3:21 am

    @Coby: I'm not a native German speaker, but in my experience German actually uses the passive *more* than English to convey an impersonal 'people do X'. Unlike English, it's even possible to do a kind of intransitive passive with no subject, eg 'hier wird gelacht'. I wonder what the Strunk and White crowd would make of that if it were a feature of English?

  14. David said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 6:11 am

    I read Obama's choice of "loss" as akin to "the loss of a soldier" in the language of war or espionage; it reflects his belief that the murder of Daniel Pearl was part of a larger campaign in which the jihadists treated him primarily as an agent of an enemy (from whose decapitation tactical advantage might be gained), rather than as a murderable person in his own right. So, if anything, I would say it was insensitive to his family to use "loss" in that context, rather than oversensitive.

  15. Dierk said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 8:38 am

    I don't see 'loss of Pearl' as particularly insipid, it just shifts the agent from the murderers to us, who have lost a great soul. And why should we focus on those wanting to be the centre of discussion? Why should the criminal extremists dominate our feelings about Pearl's violent death when it should be him we think of?

    [(myl) I think you mean "shifts the focus", not "shifts the agent". A person who suffers a loss is (almost prototypically) a patient, not an agent.]

    Eventually this comes down to personal experience – how do we react to certain phrases – and stupid partisanship – he's Obama, he's Democrat, everything he does is bad [the same holds true if you put in Boehner and Republican].

  16. Dierk said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 10:53 am

    Thanks, Mark, yes, I mean focus.

  17. The Ridger said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    I find it highly probable that "loss" is the way Obama speaks of death WHEN THE FAMILY IS THERE. Cripes, if he'd said "the brutal murder of Daniel Pearl" people would be taking him to task for savaging their feelings.

    [(myl) This makes sense to me, though it might not have been the appropriate choice in this particular case.]

    I also don't think "the loss of Daniel Pearl" is insipid, and that's because it so obviously means "death" that nobody doesn't know that.

    [(myl) In other words, it's a conventional euphemism. Q.E.D. ]

  18. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

    I wonder if the association of "loss" with passivity, in Steyn's mind, comes from the "passive loss" concept in tax law.

  19. Bill Walderman said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

    @myl: With all due respect, terms you used like "weak phrase" and "insipid" to describe Obama's reference to Daniel Pearl's death struck me as loaded with value judgments (although "euphemism" isn't, and I guess you think of "insipid" as contrasting with "vivid," a word that doesn't seem to be as judgmental). I think that's what some of us reacted to in your post when we suggested that "loss" was more appropriate that "brutal murder" or "bloody decapitation" in the circumstances where the speech was delivered, even if "loss" fails to reflect Mr. Pearl's father's strong feelings about the significance of son's death. That said, I agree with your central point about the choice of active vs. passive voice as irrelevant to the expression of indignation or moral outrage, even though I don't share Mr. Steyn's politics, on which I think you were trying to be neutral, too.

    [(myl) Yes, this is a clear description of the situation. Many of the relevant oppositions (e.g. "weak" vs. "strong") carry a value judgment on one end and not on the other. Most of the alternative words are just as loaded in one way or another: "bland", "insipid", "wimpy", "amiable", "gentle", etc.

    But the point here is to discuss a choice between "insipid" and "vivid" (or "gentle" and "harsh" if you prefer), where it's clear that passive vs. active voice is not really relevant at all.

    I went with "vivid" etc. because the "don't be passive" crowd wants the active voice to be clear, strong, crisp, manly, and so on; not harsh, violent, overbearing, or whatever. In fact, of course, the choice of voice is pretty much irrelevant to all of these dimensions.]

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

    Daniel Pearl was a journalist, but his execution was not an attempt to stop him from writing the truth or to dissuade others from doing so.

    I don't think that's entirely clear. According to the Wikipedia article, the kidnappers' ransom demand contained the lines "We give you one more day if America will not meet our demands we will kill Daniel. Then this cycle will continue and no American journalist could enter Pakistan."

    However, the video of the murder displayed the sentence "We asure [sic] Americans that they shall never be safe on the Muslim Land of Pakistan." So it seems we can take our pick.

    If Obama picked the first one, then his sentence made perfect sense, including the conventional euphemism "loss": When a brave journalist is murdered, what the public loses is his journalism, and that loss—as the result of an attempt to discourage journalism, under this assumption—reminds us of the value of a free press. (Of course, the people who knew him lost a person, but Obama was speaking in public about a law.) "Brutal murder" would have been more vivid, I agree, but the brutality of the murder on video isn't connected with the value of a free press (although it was connected with the capture of the world's imagination).

  21. Morgan said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 10:29 pm

    Steyn's critics call him uneducated, unqualified to comment on politics, inveterately right wing, and many other things besides. Maybe they're right. But he certainly does have a feel for language, and sometimes crafts it in ways that I can't help but admire. Question his motives, perhaps, but consider carefully his critique.

  22. maidhc said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 2:17 am

    I'm with Ryan Denzer-King and Jerry Friedman. I would use "loss" only in reference to an untimely death, because it implies that we will never see what that person might have contributed to society had he lived. In a case in which a person had a successful career, then enjoyed an extended retirement before dying, such as, for example, Walter Cronkite, you would not talk about his "loss", unless you were a member of his immediate family who was still interacting with him.

    Soldiers are lost in battle, old generals just fade away.

  23. George said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 5:16 am

    Have to agree with Morgan said above. Mark Steyn is a damn good writer and a savagely funny one. In a world where many only have the time to absorb one-liners, his is a powerful talent. If only the political camp I feel closer to could produce someone to equal him!

    [(myl) Aside from any consideration of humor and eloquence, his column is in sharp contrast to Kathleen Parker's in being coherent and logical. He chose an uncharitable interpretation of Obama's word choice, where a more charitable one is also plausible; but with that caveat, it seems to me that everything he wrote is correct.]

  24. kip said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

    To me the more insensitive phrase is "captured the world's imagination." Capturing the world's imagination, at least in my own vocabulary, has a strongly positive connotation, mainly used to refer to highly innovative creative works. Star Wars captured the world's imagination. Super Mario Bros. captured the world's imagination. Toy Story captured the world's imagination.

    The implication that I get on a first reading is that Daniel Pearl's murder (assassination?) was innovative, and got other people around the world thinking about wonderful new ways to enjoy murder.

  25. Daniel said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 7:25 pm

    Although "[Pearl's] execution was not an attempt to stop him from writing the truth or to dissuade others from doing so", as myl pointed out, I don't find it inappropriate to name this bill after him, considering that part of the mission of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, formed by his family and friends, is "to promote cross-cultural understanding through journalism".

    Clearly, freedom of press is an ideal Pearl cared for, and I don't think he'd mind having this law named after him.

    The goal for this speech wasn't to get us riled up about terrorism, but to honor Pearl as a journalist and not just a murder victim. (I do think Obama uses a bit of verbal sleight-of-hand when he says that Pearl's murder "reminded us that there are those who would go to any length in order to silence journalists around the world." But I don't think Pearl would have minded, I don't think his family minded, and I especially don't think his eight-year-old son, also present at the speech, minded missing out on the "gory details").

    Here's what I object to in Steyn's article:

    1) The first-paragraph implication (without any evidence or proof, just a correlation and a hunch) that Obama's rhetoric has caused the opposite of the desired effect in several recent cases

    2) The accusation that Obama didn't put care into his words

    3) Steyn's coloring of Obama's phrasing as "sludge," which would be harsh for one misplaced phrase, and doesn't fit what I find a generally elegant speech

    4) An offhand reference to "a taxpayer-funded staff sitting around all day with nothing to do but provide him with that sentence," intended to show us that lazy Obama can't even write his ineffective speeches himself, and we're the ones stuck with the bill

    5) The implication, coming near the end of the article, that Obama somehow didn't tell the truth about Pearl's death

  26. Daniel said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 8:05 pm

    Also see the "About Us" section of the Daniel Pearl Foundation website, where the first sentence reads: "The world has been shocked by the senseless loss of Daniel Pearl, a journalist who dedicated his life to bringing joy and understanding to the world."

    Does Pearl's own foundation do a disservice to his memory by not describing his bloody beheading?

  27. JP said,

    July 12, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

    "Does Pearl's own foundation do a disservice to his memory by not describing his bloody beheading?"

    How many people refer to the Shoah as the "loss of our Jewish friends?" This kind of linguistic sleight of hand (a technique a bit more difficult in more precise langauges such as German or Latin) reveals more about or society than it does about Mr. Pearl's brutal murder.

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