What do you see when I say “passive?” Hankie-totin’ Southern ladies on their fainting couches? Perhaps a heroine, reenacting The Perils of Pauline, tied to the railroad tracks, waiting for rescue? The endlessly complaining, hand-wringing, opinionated non-voter? Or is it the teenaged lump, tethered to this earth by those ever-present headphones? When one is passive, there is no active resistance or response. We can see “passive.”
For writers, there’s that pesky passive voice. When using tools to check my work, I sometimes encounter the software’s dreaded yellow squiggles, indicating a voice that’s not quite active enough. The yellow lines taunt me, demanding a re-write.
But, as the one who installed said pushy software? I actively ignore some of its error messages, tenderly x’ing out yellow squiggles here and there. What I really want to do is to yell at it. “Shut up, dammit.” Use of the passive voice is not always an error. Sometimes it’s a stylistic choice. It’s a choice I make when I don’t CARE how the action occurred or even whodunit. It just is. And, I actively — very actively — more actively than you can know… chose those words.
That, my friends, is an example of an active voice. It leaves no doubt as to the actor: c’est moi. Out here on the printed page or floating in some google-verse, thick with electrons. I still don’t understand how that happens, but I don’t care enough to investigate. Passive. Not the passive voice: just passive. On my virtual fainting couch.
But just what is a voice? I like to think of it as the fingerprint of an artistic endeavor. Actors, singers, and writers all spend time honing and developing a voice. And it can change from time to time. Stories are told, and songs are shared, over and over. 26 letters. Seven plots. Eight whole notes in a Western scale. Voice distinguishes Romeo and Juliet from West Side Story. Ronan Tynan’s Star Spangled Banner from Roseanne Barr’s. Voice is what gives an artist ownership; it makes a thing their own. Finding one’s voice is a trip along that Mobius strip called a learning curve. Age and maturity can conspire to facilitate discovery. It could be a luxurious exploration — like journaling or time shared with a gifted therapist or teacher.
And sometimes it’s as simple as a semi-automatic rifle and unspent, swastika-bearing magazines. Hundreds of lives lost: thousands of voices found.
Think about your own voice for a moment. Is it a song or a sound? A noise or a growl? I think about theirs as well: a cry, a whimper, a protest, a scream. Like so many others before them, their voices were muffled for hours as they hid in closets, whispering calls to 9-1-1. Texting ‘goodbyes’ to their loved ones. Urgent voices. Whispers. Cries. Warnings. And when the scene of the crime was deemed secure, they cried some more. And prayed and laughed and hugged with snot and tears running down their faces. And ever since we learned the term “bump stock,” we’ve seen it too many times.
Thoughts and prayers were offered. Their happily-ever-after was taken.
We use passive voice when the action is more important than the perpetrator or when one wishes to be formal, impersonal, or academic. It is accepted proper journalistic style. Do you ever worry about the blurring line between journalism and entertainment? Perhaps editors launch these neutral headlines to help us take a breath or to feel more objective. Distant. Dispassionate.
- Responsibility was accepted by the victim.
- Abusive relationships are often sustained by unemployment.
This time when they started asking ‘why’ it was loud. Why were their friends dead? They allowed their rage and fury to fuel their fierceness. The mass shooting generation: they have never known schools as safe havens. Eighteen years since Columbine. Seventeen-year-olds have grown up with active shooter drills. Barricading doors. Avoiding windows. Knowing how to signal law enforcement that they are the unarmed victims.
But, suddenly, these are not victims. They thunder. Neither victims or survivors: they are warriors. Their voices are urgent. Embattled. Strident. Rulers of the electronic universe, they are beyond able to speak for themselves. Every day they connect with those of us who love them — elders and others standing by to amplify their message. Who will be the loudest voice? The clearest one? The silent one? What, if any, action will be taken? I suspect it will be piecemeal, don’t you? And when it doesn’t work, underfunding will be blamed. And, yes, there’s a lot of passive voice right here, right now: I’m trying to protect you from my fury.
- The road was crossed by the chicken.
- The other side was reached.
- The woman was strangled by her husband.
What are the causes of gun violence? The professional politicians tell us it’s a mental health issue, caused, in part by bullying, and a lack of armed teachers in the classroom. Suddenly there are lots of answers, none of them completely correct. Correct answers don’t make good headlines.
Are you ready for the secret hiding in plain sight? They one no one wants to voice? More than half of all mass shooters have a history of domestic violence: they are victims, perpetrators or both. For most, it hasn’t been a secret — at least until after they kill. The Sandy Hook shooter’s mother feared him. The one in Parkland had threatened a girlfriend and, apparently, the folks who took him in after the death of his Mom. The man who shot up the church in Texas had been court-martialed for assaulting his wife and 2-year-old child. The D.C. sniper terrorized his wife before he branched out to a community. The Boston Marathon bomber. The Pulse nightclub shooter.
- Mistakes were made.
- The teen was shot at school.
- The young woman lost her life.
Let’s stop using words to hide the truth: she did not lose her life. It is not misplaced like so many mismatched socks in the dryer lint: she was murdered. Murdered by a madman with a gun, described by some as a ‘lovesick teen.’
Domestic violence is a women-only problem. A husband has the right. She made him angry. It’s a private family matter. Our current legislators are willing to regulate women’s bodies but not assault rifles. There are still schools in this country legally administering corporal punishment to students. Where women and children are property, domestic violence continues unabated. Unaddressed. It took years to stop publishing the names of the domestic violence victims and even longer to stop making school shooters more famous than those whose lives they stole.
- Threatening calls were made.
- The other cheek was turned.
- Woman injured.
By whom? What was injured? All of her? Or just a little bit? Her dignity, her pride, her self- respect. When was she injured? Was it a single, distinct episode or a daily occurrence? Where? Where on her body? Where in her home? Where in her town?
The Latin origin of the word passive comes from the root ‘passe-‘ meaning ‘suffered.’ But where did the often-unwanted political knee-jerk thoughts and prayers originate? While not inherently bad, their proffer seems to have become as empty as the ceremonial balloons sometimes released by survivors. Political hot air stands in for courageous action. Passive.
No wonder so many of the online grammar checkers slap my wrist. Passive voice. Perhaps instead of highlights and little yellow squiggles, I should find a different program. I want a program that responds to my passive voice like this: Stop it. Own it. Take responsibility or assign blame.
What action will you put to this?