Passive voice

I don’t lecture on passive voice with the same frequency or fervor as I did back when I taught technical/professional writing, but it’s still a sticking point for me, and I like to point it out when I see it. My favorite example remains the Reagan line during the Iran Contras of the `80s: “Mistakes were made.” By whom were those mistakes made, Ronnie? What a “clever” way to deflect blame! Why Bill Clinton didn’t use the passive voice is beyond me — how much news coverage might we have been spared (yep — passive voice deflecting blame here, too) had he simply told us, “Sex was not had with that woman.” Still, I have discovered a resurgence of the line in recent politics: Three years ago, expressing his frustration with the Bush administration’s non-response to the Katrina disaster, Sen. Trent Lott told the press that “mistakes are being made” (Lott is a Republican and, angry as he was over the tragedies unfolding in his home state — his own house was destroyed by the hurricane — he was understandably reluctant to openly blame his fellow Republicans for the fiasco). And more recently, in an interview with Charlie Gibson, vice-presidential hopeful Gov. Sarah Palin explained away the military mess in Iraq and Afghanistan with the old line, “Mistakes were made.”

Today, I was reading an article about hiring Amish contractors, and I discovered a convenient example of the kinds of misinformation and obscurity passive voice can create. In the article, the author extols the benefits of Amish craftsmanship and the Amish work ethic, but she follows this with a caution about the “special challenges” associated with Amish contracting:

“Imagine trying to keep in touch with a contractor who doesn’t own a phone — most are forbidden to have one at home. They also aren’t allowed to drive, so they need a driver or other means to get to the job site.”

Most Amish “are forbidden” by whom to own a phone? The Amish “aren’t allowed to drive” according to what? My problem with the passive voice here is that it implies a kind of authoritarian moral structure in which individuals or even religious texts are dictating the lifestyles of the Amish. And this simply is not true.

The answer to these questions is that those Amish who refuse phones or cars forbid themselves (or, I suppose, each other) these technological luxuries. And even this is dependent not on religious law or even widespread custom, but on individual communities. Each Amish community revolves around the Ordnung, a word referring both to the community itself and to the system of ethics and rules governing that community. Each Amish community gathers in regular meetings, presided over by community elders, and decide in an essentially democratic process what sorts of ethical and moral guidelines they would collectively like to hold each other responsible for. And most Amish elect to forgo technological luxuries because they view such luxuries as distractions from a simple, contemplative religious life. I like to refer to the Amish as secular monks, communities who choose to live highly spiritual lives focused almost exclusively on their faith and their God. For the Amish, tilling the fields and washing the linen and eating dinner all become a part of their regular religious experience; mentally, they are always “in church.”

The use of the passive voice in the article confuses this important feature of Amish life. The author has made it sound like the Amish live restrictive, oppressive lives dominated by antiquated laws that originated and continue to exist outside the group or the individual. In fact, the opposite is true: the Amish choose to live their lives within the spiritual liberty of work and family, free from the distractions of our modern “English” lifestyles. The passive voice takes that away from them; I am writing this in an effort to let them have their freedom — and to correct the mistakes that were made in the article.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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