Bicycle advocates can learn a lot from feminists. Take the feminist idea that the problem of sexual assault is diminished and confused when reported like so: “A woman was assaulted outside a nightclub in Sydney”. Why not say: “A man raped a woman outside a nightclub in Sydney”? The latter version puts the focus on the perpetrator and does not disguise the heinousness of his crime. The former, passive voice account, puts the focus on the woman, thus giving us a lead into thinking about some women’s provocativeness when, really, shouldn’t we be wondering what the hell is wrong with some men? The passive voice account also protects us from the gory reality of what rape entails.
“A cyclist was struck on the highway today. He was pronounced dead at the scene.” That’s what we hear. But it could be said this way:”A driver struck a cyclist on the highway today. He killed the cyclist instantly.” The former version invites lines of discussion about cyclist behaviour. Was he straying all over the road, wearing all black, or was he listening to music? The later version puts the focus where it belongs: on driving culture. The invitation now is to ask what the hell was wrong with the driver. Was he listening to music? Did he think god laid the asphalt especially for him? Was he answering his mobile phone? Was he drunk? Couldn’t he drive straight?
Dominant groups in society dominate language and help decide when active and passive voice accounts should be used. They don’t protect us from harsh realities when reporting on the actions of war time enemies. We know, for example, that, “the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour,” not that, “ships in Pearl Harbour were bombed.” We don’t hear of Westerners being beheaded. We hear of Isis beheading. The media is not trying to spare their audience from uncomfortable truths. It is sparing dominant groups from the discomfort they feel when forced to confront their own demons.
The great thing about the age of social media, is we make the headlines, for example on Twitter and Facebook. Try it with your next tweet. However, be warned. Oppressed groups internalise their overlords’ values and instinctively turn their fear of reprisal into violence upon one another. Nevertheless, you should try tweeting and writing headlines on facebook using the active voice. Don’t tell us what happened to the victim using ambiguous language. Tell us what the perpetrator did in plain language.