Passive Voice Pussyfooting

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.


  1. James says:

    Police media reporters are guilty of these crimes. Drivers don’t drive off the road and smash in to a building or tree. No, no, no. Cars “run” off the road and crash into things. It’s as though the car had a mind of its own.

    OTOH, if a person riding a bicycle on a shared path crashes into a child who ran from their parent, the person riding the bicycle would be in the headlines – not the bicycle.

    Cyclists are always personalised, where as drivers are rarely personalised.

    It makes me see red, but no matter how often I tell the police media how crap their reporting style is, they keep getting it wrong.

    Steven, perhaps you could write them all a letter, and educate them for our sake?

  2. nikdow says:

    Isn’t part of the problem that police can’t say what the perpetrator did because they are “innocent until proven guilty”? Saying “the car driver killed the cyclist” might prejudice their trial (if they ever go on trial, but that’s another problem). So the passive voice is used precisely because it carries no implication of guilt. Media operate under the same rules because the driver can avoid conviction if the media prejudices their trial.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks Nik. That’s the beauty of the new media. We can call it as we see it. So long as we don’t come across as total blowhards, or spoil our own reputations by seeming completely unfair in our treatment of individuals, we can exploit our greater freedom to collectively reposition the discourse.

    • paulc says:

      sadly, their passive voice always puts the cyclist first as having collided with a car, never the other way round…

      they always state something like “a cyclist was in collision with a car at gdfgdgd” when they should be reporting it as:

      “There has been a collision at the junction of gggggg and yyyyyy, one person was treated at the scene, the other has been taken to hospital, a person was arrested at the scene, any witnesses please contact 238495”

  3. Paul says:

    Isn’t the use of passive voice tied into the presumption of innocence until proved guilty that is afforded members of our society. It isn’t afforded to those we are at war with. , which, on reflection, may be the point you are making.

  4. Paul says:

    They’ll put the victim first when it’s cops:

    We could do the same. “A vehicle killed a cyclist …”

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