Passive blindness in the NYRB

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In Mark Danner, "Donald Rumsfeld Revealed", New York Review of Books 1/9/2014, a beautiful example of the grammatical incoherence of contemporary intellectual discourse:

Caught by Morris, he is not embarrassed or nonplussed. Nor does he acknowledge that he'd been wrong, or indeed engage Morris's question—the question about his own responsibility—at all. We get only a blank stare, and the same mild serious attentiveness. The dogged indomitable wrestler will not admit that he has been prevaricating. The filmmaker, determined to pierce the opacity, persists:

Morris: Are you saying stuff just happens?
Rumsfeld: Well, we know that in every war there are things that evolve that hadn't been planned for or fully anticipated, and that things occur which shouldn't occur.
Morris: Wouldn't it have been better not to go there at all?
Rumsfeld: Well, I guess time will tell.

We have reverted here to the bureaucratic passive tense that attained its true fame in the mouth of Rumsfeld's mentor, Richard M. Nixon: "Mistakes were made…."

For more documentation of  "passive" confusion than any rational person will want to read, see this comprehensive list of past LL posts on related topics.  For some guidance on the relevant aspects of English grammar, see Geoff Pullum's post "The passive in English", 1/24/2011.

[Tip of the hat to Alexander Williams]

 



27 Comments

  1. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 30, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

    Danner apparently received his undergraduate education at Harvard ('81, magna cum laude). It seems unrealistic to expect him to have been exposed to obscure minutiae like the "passive voice." He was probably taking Nagy's notorious "Heroes for Zeroes" gut rather than studying comparative Indo-European verbal morphology with the late Calvert Watkins.

  2. Chris said,

    December 30, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

    Is there a better, correct name for sentences that avoid referring to a human actor? (which could be either active ("Shit happens") or passive ("Mistakes were made") sentences)

  3. Piyush said,

    December 30, 2013 @ 4:01 pm

    @Chris: I am not sure how useful such a label would be if it were to defined purely in those terms. For example, with your definition, it will presumably have to apply to sentences like "Leaves fall" or "The Earth goes round the Sun", and also to "Mistakes happen")

  4. Nyq Only said,

    December 30, 2013 @ 4:09 pm

    I think we could come up with a name for such sentences but the important issue is that the distinction is less grammatical and more semantic. The examples that occur typically take deliberate action and recast it as if it were something more akin to a force of nature. As such they parallel sentences were we cast forces of nature as if they are intelligent being who act with an intent. Perhaps "reversed pathetic fallacy to obscure responsibility"
    Of course issues of writing style can include rhetorical devices as well as grammar.

  5. Chris Waters said,

    December 30, 2013 @ 4:20 pm

    For a label, how about "obscurantism"? :)

  6. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    December 30, 2013 @ 5:11 pm

    There is a passive there in the relative clause: "that hadn't been planned or fully anticipated." And the passive in fact is an evasion of agency (hadn't been planned / anticipated. by whom?) I guess Danner might also think that the other verbs here are passive, but we don't know that unless we can read his mind.

  7. Jeff R. said,

    December 30, 2013 @ 5:11 pm

    @Chris: "Impersonal" works fine, although as Piyush comments would apply to sentences that really ought to be cast that was as much as to the ones that shouldn't.

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 30, 2013 @ 5:37 pm

    Jonathan Mayhew: We could recast that in active voice as "we know that in every war there are things that evolve that nobody had planned for or fully anticipated." But that doesn't strike me as either more or less evasive as to agency (or "bureaucratic") than the passive construction Rumsfeld used. I suspect myl may also have been taking the locution "passive tense" as evidence that the writer does not know his morphological ass from his syntactic elbow.

  9. Chris Waters said,

    December 30, 2013 @ 6:50 pm

    Jonathan Mayhew: I agree we can't know what the reporter actually intended, but the lack of agency in "things occurred" is far more likely to draw complaints than a lack of agency in anticipation. I may not *know* that Danner got it wrong, but it seems like a more plausible interpretation than the reverse.

    Of course, there's an echo in there of my own favorite defense of the active voice: it allows you to avoid suggesting there *was* an agent! "Mistakes were made" implies that someone made them, which may trigger a hunt for the guilty party. If you say "mistakes occurred," it takes an extra step to arrive at the same conclusion, so you're much safer. Therefore, if you're a politician trying to deflect blame, always use the active voice!

  10. Lance said,

    December 30, 2013 @ 9:18 pm

    Maybe Danner isn't saying that Rumsfeld was using the passive voice, which is bureaucratic; maybe he's saying that Rumsfeld used the grammatical voice called "bureaucratic passive", which consists of passive verbs and carefully agentless active verbs. Or more properly the rhetorical voice, rather than a grammatical one.

    Maybe not, but it sounds good, doesn't it?

  11. John Walden said,

    December 31, 2013 @ 3:39 am

    Halliday: "…..information that is presented by the speaker as recoverable (Given) or not recoverable (New) to the listener. What is treated as recoverable may be so because it has been mentioned before; but that is not the only possibility. It may be something that is in the situation, like I and you; or in the air, so to speak; or something that is not around at all but that the speaker wants to present as Given for rhetorical purposes. The meaning is: this is not news. Likewise, what is treated as non-recoverable may be something that has not been mentioned; but it may be something unexpected, whether previously mentioned or not. The meaning is: attend to this; this is news"

    So my take is that the more-or-less front position of more-or-less themic "we" "in every war" and "things" is intended to present them as the Old Information, the Given. Rumsfeld doesn't (want to) have to explain what he means by "we" "in every war" and "things". He wants his insights to be the rhemic "hadn't been planned for or fully anticipated". It's supposed to be the New Information. Not that he actually says anything.

    Don't take me too much to task on the terminology. My recollections of all this are very hazy, even assuming I understood it in the first place.

    The term you're all looking for is Bullshittery.

  12. mollymooly said,

    December 31, 2013 @ 5:06 am

    @Chris:

    Is there a better, correct name for sentences that avoid referring to a human actor?

    What Language Log posters have been calling it since at least 2004 is "vagueness about agency". Admittedly that's a phrase, not a single word. If you want a single word, I can suggest VAA; those who know Latin (or, better, Greek) might coin something more inkhorn.

  13. Ken Brown said,

    December 31, 2013 @ 7:09 am

    The word "agentless" has been used in these comments.

  14. Ken Brown said,

    December 31, 2013 @ 7:10 am

    … by Lance.

  15. Lane said,

    December 31, 2013 @ 7:51 am

    I know "mistakes were made" as a Reganism, and had to look up the Nixon reference… Wikipedia associates it explicitly with his press secretary, though it says vaguely that Nixon "used" it without saying when or how. Am I the only one here who associates it much more with Reagan?

  16. BlueLoom said,

    December 31, 2013 @ 8:15 am

    "Am I the only one here who associates it much more with Reagan?"

    Absolutely. Reagan & the Iran/Contra scandal.

  17. Bill W said,

    December 31, 2013 @ 9:31 am

    @ Jonathan Mayhew:

    "There is a passive there in the relative clause: "that hadn't been planned or fully anticipated." And the passive in fact is an evasion of agency (hadn't been planned / anticipated. by whom?) "

    Even if this is what Danner is referring to, he calls it the passive "tense." That suggests he's laboring under the hazy notion that any phrase that doesn't make agency explicit must be "passive."

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 31, 2013 @ 10:18 am

    The presidential use of the passive goes back at least to Grant's valedictory State of the Union in 1876 where he delicately alluded to the various scandals that had plagued his administration by saying "mistakes have been made." (Like many other presidents before and after, he limited his own responsibility for those mistakes to having, in hindsight, selected the wrong people to hold various government posts and then being foolish enough to trust his appointees to be competent and/or honest.)

  19. Jonathon Owen said,

    December 31, 2013 @ 1:44 pm

    "maybe he's saying that Rumsfeld used the grammatical voice called 'bureaucratic passive', which consists of passive verbs and carefully agentless active verbs. Or more properly the rhetorical voice, rather than a grammatical one."

    Exactly. It isn't a grammatical voice at all or any other sort of grammatical phenomenon, but rather an assortment of grammatical, semantic, and rhetorical tools that allow one to be vague about agency. Maybe this strategy of avoiding agency is a phenomenon worthy of a name, but it shouldn't be called the passive voice (unless it really is).

  20. Henry Clay said,

    January 1, 2014 @ 10:33 am

    @Piyush, aren't the innumerable language log posts bemoaning the fact that non-linguists have co-opted a grammatical term to describe such a thing significant evidence that people do, in fact, find such a label very useful?

    I'll grant you that trying to describe this phenomenon in grammatical terms is doomed to failure since it's not a grammatical phenomenon. It's semantic, judgmental and normative. The use of "passive tense" here doesn't describe the sentences themselves, but is rather an accusation that Rumsfield is deliberately obscuring the human actor in these sentences.

    In your examples, "leaves fall" would not necessarily fit this category, but one could easily imagine a situation where, say, a logging company accidentally stripped a set of trees that they weren't supposed to touch and reported it as "leaves fell from the protected trees", which could fit this category. It's the speaker's intention, not the sentence structure, that forms what people call "bureaucratic passive" or "actorless" or whatever.

  21. Jeffry A. House said,

    January 1, 2014 @ 11:22 am

    The example of agentless activity which I recall best is the time when "a sinister force" was blamed for erasing 18 minutes of Nixon's Watergate tapes.

    That was "a source of great distress" but not to anyone with a name.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/watergate/articles/120773-1.htm

  22. Ted said,

    January 2, 2014 @ 3:56 am

    I read this as a direct reference to the phrase "things . . . that hadn't been planned for or fully anticipated." As Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld was the person ultimately responsible for the planning and anticipation, and Danner's point is that he used the passive voice to make it seem otherwise. The substitution of "tense" for "voice" is arguably incoherent, but that's a lexical problem, not a grammar problem. I think myl is off-base on this one.

  23. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 2, 2014 @ 11:29 am

    There are in a large organization like the U.S. military lots and lots of people in charge of various sorts of planning and anticipation within their particular spheres of responsibility, from the Secretary of Defense all the way down to individual squad leaders in the field. Rumsfeld's macro point was that it is inevitable in wartime that the planning/anticipation will be imperfect at all levels. As I indicated above, the most obvious active-voice counterpart to the phrase has a subject like "nobody" planned/anticipated, because it was "everybody's" job to do so and "everybody" did their job subject to the usual human inability to predict the future with perfect accuracy. Thinking that the "correct" active-voice counterpart would have involved Rumsfeld making himself rather than the much larger group of which he was a part the syntactic subject is not a judgment about grammar, but a fantasy based on political beliefs external to the discourse context. Indeed, Rumsfeld could have been less vague about agency by identifying particular subordinates and blaming them. (I think Nixon did that, from time to time.) Or the questioner could have followed up by asking whether the degree of lack-of-anticipation ended up being of a greater magnitude than was inevitably inherent in the situation and/or what Rumsfeld and his team did to adjust course once particular unplanned/unanticipated things did, in fact, occur.

  24. dw said,

    January 2, 2014 @ 12:53 pm

    The anguish that this trivial error (calling things passive voice that technically aren't) causes linguists is at least as interesting sociologically as the error is linguistically. You would really think it was an error on the scale of thinking the earth is flat, for the frenzy it causes on language log.

  25. Breffni said,

    January 3, 2014 @ 8:17 am

    dw, I don't think misidentified passives would cause much anguish at all if the misidentifiers didn't place such great moral importance on the matter. They note a problem in ethical conduct (deceit, obfuscation), (mis)diagnose a linguistic ailment (passive voice), and prescribe a useless treatment (avoid passive) which they are themselves unable to implement. At best it wastes their own time and energy, at worst it risks diverting readers' attention away from real issues of ethics and character. Good example here.

  26. DW said,

    January 3, 2014 @ 10:13 am

    Yes, I understand. The complaint is that people get moralistic over this passive voice thing, even when they're not actually very well informed about the linguistic "error" they're complaining about.

    But then linguists get themselves even *more* morally outraged over the incorrect appellation "passive voice." It's just interesting.

    I mean, we all do get the complaint about Rumsfeld, I'm sure. Is it worth being in such an endless snit over a public misunderstanding of a particular linguistic or grammatical term? People want a fancy name for the sins of someone like Rumsfeld, that's all. They think it makes the complaint sound a bit more official.

    People think that politicians' use of language is *interesting*, and revealing. They're right. They don't understand the complexities of it the way linguists do, so they use terms in less-than-accurate ways.

    In virtually any other area, linguists treat the public's use of language with great tolerance and even affection. Somehow, this "Don't call it passive voice when it's not" thing just really makes linguists lie awake at night.

  27. Ted said,

    January 3, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

    @J. W. Brewer:

    Thinking that the "correct" active-voice counterpart would have involved Rumsfeld making himself rather than the much larger group of which he was a part the syntactic subject is not a judgment about grammar, but a fantasy based on political beliefs external to the discourse context.

    If that's addressed to me, I don't think my argument is in any way premised on the notion that there might be a particular "correct" active-voice counterpart to Rumsfeld's passive construction.

    Certainly, he could have referred to "things we didn't plan for or fully anticipate," which would have (accurately) included himself in the universe of policymakers with responsibility. I don't know why you suggest that this sort of phrasing would require him to use the first-person singular and take sole, individual responsibility. For that matter, he could just as easily have referred to "things we couldn't have planned for or fully anticipated."

    But under both of these formulations, Rumsfeld would have addressed only one particular instance of unforeseen circumstances in which he was involved (in this case, Abu Ghraib). We should, in fairness, grant him the broader point he was asserting, which is that this is a universal condition that applies regardless of the circumstances.

    He could still have said, for example, "in every war, things evolve and we could never have planned for or fully anticipated all of them." Or "in every war, things evolve and nobody can plan for or fully anticipate all of them." Or even "in every war, things evolve and it is impossible to plan for or fully anticipate all of them."

    The thing is, each of these is an explicit proposition, with a clear assertion of agency, and can be challenged or disputed. You could provide evidence and argue that, given that evidence, it was indeed possible for Rumsfeld (or the cabinet he belonged to, or the department he headed) to have planned for or anticipated the things that occurred. (I mean, of course, that it's logically possible to make this argument, not that any such evidence actually exists.)

    It's also easier to see, in this formulation, that when Rumsfeld argues that it's impossible to plan for or fully anticipate everything that might happen in war, he's setting up a straw man and begging the relevant question. Yes, it may be impossible to plan for, or fully anticipate (and notice that "fully"), everything that might possibly occur. But was it possible for Rumsfeld (or the cabinet of which he was a part, or the department he headed) to have averted the specific events that in fact occurred, or to have anticipated the possibility of events that raised materially similar issues and thus been better prepared to respond to them?

    Danner is both accurate and, in my view, perceptive to point out that Rumsfeld deftly uses the passive voice here to avoid these questions, making the discussion about how things that inevitably happen during war are universally, by their nature, incapable of being fully anticipated, rather than about whether specific actors could have or should have been better prepared for specific things that in fact happened.

    And Rumsfeld's use of this rhetorical technique to suit his own political objectives is something worth identifying and discussing. It is hardly "a fantasy based on political beliefs external to the discourse context."

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