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The Passive Voice is Killing Me

The passive voice, and its usage in reporting of car crashes, has been coming up often here lately (here and here).

This morning’s New York Times features another usage, in a particularly unsettling story. Now, I should first point out the Times, in its sort of detached mandarin role as omnipotent cultural arbiter, has been historically lousy with these constructions (e.g., “A reporter was told” instead of “I heard”). And, unfortunately, this has long been a staple of journalism; note Wolcott Gibbs’ brilliant take-down of the torturous prose that used to be called “Luce-speak” (at Time and elsewhere), collected in Dwight MacDonald’s sadly out-of-print collection Parodies: “Sad-eyed last month was nimble, middle-sized Life-President Clair Maxwell…”

In any case, here’s how today’s Times story began:

A 28-year-old pregnant woman was killed and a second woman was seriously injured on Friday afternoon when a driver, apparently intoxicated and following the women as they walked down a Midtown Manhattan street, lost control of a supermarket maintenance van, which jumped onto the sidewalk and slammed into them, the police and witnesses said.

I wondered about a different way to construct the opening line:

An apparently intoxicated driver killed a 28-year-old pregnant woman and seriously injured a second when he lost control of his van and slammed into them, the police and witnesses said.

This needs tinkering, admittedly, but the point is clear: In the first case, the question of agency is put down less to the driver than to the van, which mysteriously jumped the curb, leading to the method by which the woman “was killed.” The second point brings the point home more quickly, and I think leaves the reader feeling differently.

Some have raised the question of legal responsibility, and how a reporter may lean on the passive voice in trying to cover themselves against libel (or maybe it’s a gesture toward some sensitivity toward the driver; but what about the victim?). But I see nothing here that refutes the essential point: The driver killed the woman. This sentence does not use the criminal/legal distinction of “murder,” it is simply stating the obvious: Whether it was intentional or not, a killing took place. Unless the vehicle itself had a mechanical flaw, it cannot be directly held responsible (and even in that case a driver is ultimately responsible for maintaining his vehicle).

This leads to a second point; the use of the word “accident” throughout the story. That this word still appears so casually in stories involving intoxicated drivers rather astonishes me. Yes, it may have been “unintentional” or “unexpected,” but given what we know about what alcohol does to driving performance, and given that alcohol use while driving is tantamount to criminal negligence (or even murder, in a recent case), should the same word — accident — really be used to describe a drunk driver killing someone; and, say, the person who backed into me in a suburban New Jersey strip mall a month ago?

The reason epidemiologists dislike the word is that drunk driving deaths are clearly not accidental; they represent the largest cause of vehicular death in this country, and in most of the world; they are not random, they happen predominantly at certain times and to certain classes of drivers, in sharp and predictable patterns. The word “accident” in this story of the tragic death of the woman in Manhattan implies it was just part of the capricious wheel of fate, and not a clearly identified threat to public health. There’s a reason we don’t call plagues “accidents” — people want solutions found, measures taken. The recent crane collapses brought new legislation, panels of inquiry, etc.; what will this death bring?

I am frankly not sure why we are so afraid to assign responsibility in car crashes. Is it that we view traffic violations in general as “folk crimes,” not quite “real” crimes? Is it the “there for the grace of God” argument, that it may someday be us behind the wheel of “a car that strikes a pedestrian”? I sometimes hear the argument made, ‘well that driver will suffer the rest of his life for what he did’; maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But that’s not provable, not quantifiable. Prison time is. I find it interesting that people who commit negligent homicide while driving dangerously often walk, even as our jails are filled up with people who were simply trying to improve their lot in life — see this Times (!) story on how people busted on victimless immigration charges are filling up our federal jails).

Now, back to the passive voice. This itself is an ambiguous and sometimes misunderstood thing, as this interesting post notes. And you might argue that these are merely semantic issues. But how else do we frame and interpret the world in a meaningful, transmittable way except through language? The issue here is: What does language do? How does the use of the passive construction in the Times article change the way we feel about the incident?

A few years back, a researcher at UCLA named Nancy Henley had subjects in a trial read news accounts that reported crimes such as rape in both a passive and an active voice. As a summary in Psychology Today noted, “When men read rape and battery stories written in the passive voice, they attributed less blame to the perpetrator — and less harm to the victim — than for the active-voice versions.”

I’m not sure if a similar study has been done for the reporting of crashes, particularly involving pedestrians and/or cyclists (but I’d like to see one done) — which may be viewed as “out” groups in our vehicle heavy society. But it seems rather common-sense that the more that language distances the person who committed a crime and the crime itself, we will only naturally begin to attribute less responsibility to that person — perhaps even to the point where even the victim’s culpability is raised (and, eerily enough in the case of today’s news story, a report just came in via radio that the driver was sexual harassing the woman before then running her down). It may even shift us away from thinking that a crime was committed at all.

In his classic essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell noted that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Language changes how we feel about something; even what we remember about events, as a study by Elizabeth Loftus once found; people who viewed a clip of a car crash gave higher speed estimates after the fact depending on the words that were used (e.g, “smashed,” “struck” etc.). And of course it’s no surprise that the passive voice is an almost de facto occurrence when someone is trying to shift blame away from themselves: Ronald Reagan’s famous quip “mistakes were made.”

Which reminds me of a passage from the excellent book Mistakes Were Made, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. They write: ” A friend returning from a day in traffic school told us that as participants went around the room, a miraculous coincidence occurred: Not one of them was responsible for breaking the law. They all had justifications for why they were speeding, had ignored a stop sign, ran a red light, or made an illegal U-turn. He became so dismayed by the litany of flimsy excuses that, when his turn came, he was embarrassed to give in to the same impulse. He said, ‘I didn’t get stop at a stop sign. I was entirely wrong and I got caught.’ There was a moment’s silence, and then the room erupted in cheers for his candor.”

Through “cognitive dissonance,” we all manage to tell ourselves stories that we somehow weren’t responsible for stupid decisions we made. The media would do better than to turn this psychological flaw into a staple of its reporting.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, March 28th, 2009 at 5:34 pm and is filed under Etc., Traffic Culture, Traffic Enforcement, Traffic safety, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

13 Responses to “The Passive Voice is Killing Me”

  1. Michael Says:

    “Is it the ‘there for the grace of God’ argument, that it may someday be us behind the wheel of ‘a car that strikes a pedestrian’?”

    It’s just odd to me that people clearly don’t mostly respond to that risk by driving carefully lest they kill someone, but by being daredevils but carefully using the most passive possible voice and dehumanizing or blaming the victims. Society has plenty of moral scolds telling us we’re all sinners, but I’ll believe they’re serious about morality when they become traffic safety scolds foremost and rant and rave about people enjoying sex too much secondarily.

  2. sexify Says:

    As a chap who cycles or takes the train 99% of the time, I find it amazing to hear friends who drive blame their speeding on the road layout (“That road isn’t built to be a 30mph limit”) or their vehicle (“My car just won’t keep to 30mph down that incline”) or in terms of other road users (having to keep up with the traffic flow or not delaying the person behind), but never themselves. Odd that.

    The bad habits of people who want their car to be free more than they want their kids to be safe.

  3. Todd Scott Says:

    But sometimes articles are written as if the driver is the victim and the car is the perpetrator…

    From the Port Huron Times Herald: “A St. Clair County man died Monday after his car struck a tree near the intersection of Meldrum Road and St. Clair Highway. According to trooper Derek Hoffmann of the Michigan State Police Richmond Post, the man’s vehicle left the roadway and struck a tree. Police are investigating the crash.”

  4. Tony Toews Says:

    A friend of a friend, who has been a guest in Her Majesty’s prisons in Canada a number of times, told me that you never ask a fellow convict what they did. Instead you ask “What were you convicted of?”

  5. Alan MacHett Says:

    I am studying urban and regional planning. Several of my courses have covered the history of the automobile culture in the United States. I would posit that (1)as stated in your book, drivers perceive themselves as better drivers than they actually are, and (2)journalists accept and repeat that perspective in their stories about “accidents”; (3)because, as an auto-dependent culture, we cannot suffer to have that culture disparaged in any way — better to claim that “accidents” are unavoidable acts of fate rather than admit that certain elements of the system have flaws, thereby inviting scrutiny of the system and the subsequent changes to fix those flaws (I speak of more than just drunk drivers here).

  6. jack Says:

    The print media is an important supporter of the cabal trying to put a positive spin on the car culture. You think the need for ad revenues may lead to perspective problems?

  7. Yokota Fritz Says:

    Cycling lawyer Bob Mionske often talks about the media bias against cyclists in crash reporting. Last year in my area a sheriff’s deputy fell asleep at the wheel of his car, drifted over the centerline and struck three cyclists riding single file in a bike lane.

    The most egregiously bad reporting came from the San Jose Mercury News: “The group collided with the deputy’s car,” before describing the hazards of cyclists running lights, riding 2 abreast, and other ‘crazy’ cyclists behavior. This is in an article describing an incident in which the cyclists were riding lawfully on a normally safe, bike laned road.

  8. geografree Says:

    This is a public health video in heavy rotation currently in New Zealand. The title is “Intersections can be deadly”.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldIAgOzTLtw

  9. j. gunn Says:

    i’m afraid i don’t have anything to add here, i just wish to say.. i enjoyed this article very much, and i am still processing it’s possible ramifications.

  10. PollyTeek Says:

    The folks over at Streetsblog have been discussing this lack of accountability; they want the next NYC D.A. to take the carnage seriously.

  11. patrick barber Says:

    I am relieved to find that I am not the only one who sees a parallel between the blame-the-victim way that our culture treats/treated female rape victims, and the way we treat bicycle-riding victims of traffic collisions. The masculine/feminine parallels go deeper than the crash scenes, too, in the way that bicycle users are regarded on the road compared to their automobile-driving counterparts. Sometimes I think of it as “cars are from Mars, bikes are from Venus.” I wonder if there’s a book in that…

  12. Jurjen S. Says:

    I’d like to (belatedly) weigh in from the perspective of a gun owner. Despite the reputation as irresponsible yahoos that many of us have (and in a number of cases, that is not undeserved), you will find that anyone who uses the term “accidental” to refer to an unintentional discharge on a gun owners’ forum will immediately be corrected: the term “accidental discharge” is warranted only if the discharge occurs to a mechanical malfunction of the firearm, and this is an extremely rare occurrence; the correct term is “negligent discharge” (or “ND” for short). Responsible gun owners know that guns don’t just “go off”; they discharge because someone caused them to.

    Despite being a troglodyte in his political views, the late Jeff Cooper did formulate the Four Rules of Gun Safety (you can Google them) which, if adhered to, should prevent all NDs. Moreover, an ND that results in injury to a person can only be achieved by violating at least two of the Four Rules: #2 “Do allow the muzzle to cover anything you are not willing to destroy” & #3 “Keep your finger outside the trigger guard unless you are intentionally in the process of shooting” (the latter being the Massad Ayoob revised version). Even in the highly unlikely event of a firearm discharging due to a mechanical malfunction, personal injury can only result from the wielder failing to observe Rule #2.

    It is entirely reasonable to insist, by the same token, that traffic accidents–especially involving motor vehicles–should, more correctly, be called “traffic negligences,” as they almost invariably occur as a result of someone being insufficiently cautious and attentive to their surroundings.

    Alan McHett makes some excellent points above, to which I’d like to add. I immigrated to the US seven years ago from the (urbanized) western Netherlands, where I’d relied almost entirely on foot, bicycle and public transport to get around. As Alan says, the US is highly car-dependent, not least because distances can be quite large. And because Americans are, to a very real extent, forced to spend so much time in their vehicles, they–make that “we” since I’ve been citizen for two years–are strongly inclined to try to “get stuff done” during that time, such as eating a meal, doing personal grooming, reading the paper and, of course, making phone calls. All these activities inevitably impair drivers’ situational awareness, but (as Alan notes) because we overestimate our driving skills, we think we’ll be okay. We have an annual death toll of 40,000+ that says this is not the case.

  13. McD Says:

    Good article, but which did you mean …..

    see http://englishplus.com/grammar/00000264.htm

    Tortuous, Torturous, or Tortured?

    Tortuous means “winding, crooked” or “tricky to handle.”

    Torturous means “causing torture” or “painful in a cruel way.”

    Tortured as an adjective means “receiving torture” or “pained.”

    Examples: He had to take a tortuous route through the Alps.

    He survived the torturous existence of the concentration camp.

    The beggar gave a tortured look to the passers-by.

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How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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