“I acknowledge that mistakes were made.”
–Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales
Isn’t the passive voice a wonderful thing? It’s a way to appear responsible, without actually taking any responsibility. A handy rhetorical tool for those in politics, and one which we got to see in use just today, as our Chief Rationalizer for the Undermining of the Constitution, also known as the Attorney General, tried to justify the political firing of eight U.S. Attorneys while at the same time pretending he had nothing to do with it.
“Mistakes were made,” certainly, but when phrased that way, it leaves open the very important question, who by? Please, tell us, exactly who made these mistakes? You? Karl Rove? The alleged president? The American people, by voting these weasels into power? I submit to you, my nonexistent readers, that there is a world of difference between saying “mistakes were made,” and admitting that “I made a mistake.”
In fairness to Gonzales, he is hardly the first political-type to try to weasel out of a tight spot using the passive voice, and he certainly won’t be the last. Examples abound of this sort of creative use of the passive voice in politics. I seem to recall someone in the Reagan administration saying it in connection with the Iran-Contra affair, and others have used similar words in similarly awkward or appalling political situations.
And there are good reasons why we see so much of this from the mouths of politicians. A rather startling percentage of politicians are lawyers, after all, and while law students are generally urged by their writing instructors to use the active voice, those same instructors will be the first to tell you that the passive voice can be your friend when you want to accurately describe the facts in a brief without making your client look guilty of whatever he or she (or it, in the case of corporate clients) has been accused of. Consider the following example:
Imagine you are representing a defendant in a civil lawsuit in which one party is being sued for, hypothetically speaking, shooting the plaintiff in the face while the plaintiff and the defendant were out hunting after having a few beers. Which of the following sentences would you rather include in your legal brief?
“Plaintiff was shot in the face while hunting.”
“Defendant Cheney then accidentally shot the plaintiff in the face.”
The first option acknowledges that the plaintiff was shot in the face, but provides no information about who pulled the trigger. Conversely, even putting in the word “accidentally” in the second statement doesn’t help our poor defendant out very much there, does it?
In fairness to the Republicans (and make a note that I am trying to be fair to the slimy bastards), Democrats are probably just as guilty of abuse of the passive voice. In the face of reporters trying to get Hillary Clinton to admit that she was wrong to vote in favor of the Iraq war, the most I have heard anyone get from her is an acknowledgment that “it was a mistake” — not that she made a mistake. (Shame on you, Hillary. You’re not fooling anyone with half a brain and that will work against you, since you’re not running for the Republican Party’s nomination.)
Some reporters push the issue, but it seems like many more dutifully repeat what is said to them without further inquiry. And of course, on Faux News, they just stick to whatever talking points they’ve been handed by their Republican Party overlords. We need to start forcing the issue when we are confronted with politicians trying to passive-voice their way out of a sticky situation. Otherwise, mistakes will continue to be made, and responsibility will continue to be ducked.