Passive voice editorials flinch from the truth

Boston Globe

One of the most pernicious of pieces on the opinion pages of our newspapers is the passive voice editorial, which pleads that something must be done — but doesn’t suggest who should do it. That’s particularly worrisome during the current pandemic, because we already know that things are screwed up and people are dying. We need to know who’s responsible for fixing it.

A passive op-ed about coronavirus

Today I’ll be analyzing “In order for Massachusetts to reopen, trust needs to be rebuilt,” a Boston Globe op-ed by Katherine Gergen Barnett, residency director in the Department of Family Medicine at Boston Medical Center and Boston University Medical School. It’s particularly poignant because I agree with many of the prescriptions in this piece, but the passive voice in it mars a reasoned analysis with loads of impotent teeth-gnashing.

What follows are excerpts that feature passive voice sentences. I’ve marked the passive voice in italic. As a reminder, passive voice sentences feature forms of the verb “to be” and have a subject that is not the actor, making it difficult to figure out who is supposed to be doing whatever it is they recommend. The simplest test for the passive is the “zombies” test: if you add “by zombies” after the verb, these sentences still make sense.

In each case, I’ll try to rewrite the sentences in active voice and see what it reveals about the truth of the situation.

In order for Massachusetts to reopen, trust needs to be rebuilt

There are core elements of leadership that engender trust: consistency, expertise, and positive relationships.

By Katherine Gergen Barnett, May 25, 2020

As Governor Charlie Baker rolls out his four-phase plan for reopening Massachusetts amid the coronavirus pandemic, he is asking each of us to do our part to keep infection rates down, including vigilance on hygiene, social distancing, and staying home when sick. While most of us accept that an effective pandemic response demands that we curtail many individual freedoms, those sacrifices are getting harder to make without a clear understanding of the pathway out of the crisis. To safely continue on, trust in our public health systems and governing bodies must be reestablished. While trust may be an old-fashioned concept, it is the social contract that holds individuals together in a crisis.

Trust must be rebuilt . . . by zombies? At issue here is who is responsible for rebuilding the trust. While Barnett name-checks governor Baker, she slyly omits holding him responsible — but who else is she expecting to “reestablish trust?”

The active voice rewrite makes it clear who to turn to:

Active voice: In order for Massachusetts to reopen, elected officials must rebuild trust . . . To safely continue on, the governor, the mayor, and public health officials must reestablish trust in our public health systems and governing bodies.

From the perspective of many on the frontlines, this trust has been sadly degraded over the past two months. Residents of Boston have suffered at home and have often been denied COVID-19 tests. Some have self-isolated in impossibly small and crowded spaces and others have dropped their loved ones off at hospital emergency rooms only to never see them again. Scores have lost their employment with no clear sense if their jobs will be waiting for them on the other side.

The first two sentences are passive: “trust has been sadly degraded . . by zombies”; “Residents of Boston have suffered at home and have often been denied COVID-19 tests . . . by zombies.” The last two sentences are just past tense, not passive, because it was the people themselves who self-isolated, dropped off their loved ones, and lost their employment.

Rewriting these first two sentences in active voice is a challenge . . . and that’s revealing. Who is to blame? Here’s a guess:

Active voice: Over the past two months, the actions of public officials and the resulting flood of cases have degraded the trust of many on the frontlines. As a result of shortages of testing supplies and equipment, health officials have denied COVID-19 tests to residents of Boston.

For those who have kept their jobs, many (most often in vulnerable, and disproportionately Black and Latinx communities) have been forced to work without adequate protections, risking both their lives and the lives of loved ones.  . . .

It’s a pretty good question: who is forcing people to work without protection? You can see why the author hasn’t put this in the active voice: she wants us to be upset, but the active voice sentence forces us to consider the dark question of who is to blame.

Active voice: Managers of those who have kept their jobs have forced many of them (most often in vulnerable, and disproportionately Black and Latinx communities) to work without adequate protections, risking both their lives and the lives of loved ones.

Social workers in St. Louis coined this fracturing and the ensuing grief “betrayal trauma.” Betrayal trauma occurs when individuals or groups are placed in situations where the systems that are supposed to take care of them actually cause harm. Front line workers, health care workers and citizens of Massachusetts have counted on a federal response during this pandemic and instead have been left with inadequate protection, testing, and contact tracing and the results have been deadly. With a federal response that remains confusing and inadequate, we must look more and more to state and local leaders, as well as the Boston medical community, to fill the void and to rebuild trust.

As long as you’re blaming the feds, don’t use passives to let them off the hook.

Active voice: The federal response has left front line workers, health care workers and citizens of Massachusetts, who have counted on a federal response during this pandemic, with inadequate protection, testing, and contact tracing and the results have been deadly.

History and experience indicate that there are core elements of leadership that engender trust: consistency, expertise, and positive relationships.

First, the focus needs to be on consistency. In the case of COVID-19, inconsistency of messaging has been one of the largest breaches of trust. That leaves it up to the health leaders and policy makers to share in simple and culturally competent language what the data is telling us, what we still do not understand, why certain measures are important, and how new guidelines can be easily followed. Having guidelines that are confusing, contradictory, or changing on a regular basis leaves people feeling uncertain and more apt to make choices that are driven by convenience or fear.

There are no passive voice sentences here, but there are what I call “passive-ish” constructions — sentences that, while not grammatically passive, omit who is responsible. Who is supposed to focus on consistency? Here is a rewrite that might make that clearer:

Rewrite: Health leaders and policy makers must focus on consistency of messaging, because in the case of COVID-19, inconsistency of messaging has been one of the largest breaches of trust.

The second pillar of trust is expertise. There are too many conflicting voices and too much uninformed politicking coming from Washington. How should we ensure that the these voices are informed by adequate and sound data, lack of economic interest, and a focus on the health of the people? America’s profound under-investment in public health, short-sighted dismissals of key leaders, and the Trump administration’s muzzling of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have undercut the strength of federal experts and, as a result, we all suffer. It is time to reinvest in public health leadership and let the experts speak.

Ah, the rhetorical question. How should we insure that these voices are properly informed? Again, no actual passives, but imagine how this could be stronger:

Rewrite: The second pillar of trust is expertise. It is time to reinvest in public health leadership and let the experts speak. Washington has delivered too many conflicting voices and too much uninformed politicking. America’s profound under-investment in public health, short-sighted dismissals of key leaders, and the Trump administration’s muzzling of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have undercut the strength of federal experts and, as a result, we all suffer. We must ensure that these voices are informed by adequate and sound data, lack of economic interest, and a focus on the health of the people.

Finally, in order to restore trust, all of us must work to restore positive relationships. This is particularly true for the communities that have been hardest hit by COVID-19. The impact of the pandemic and how it underscores historical racism and inequities in the state needs to be publicly addressed and immediately countered. Testing and contact tracing need to be set up in all communities, especially those most impacted, members of these communities need to have a real voice at the table, and clear protections for the most economically vulnerable returning to work need to be established. We need to work together to ensure that houses will not be taken away; food will remain on tables; safe places for self-isolation are readily available; and sick time will be paid when people need to stay home.

This had the potential to be the most powerful part of the op-ed — but if you read the passives closely, it actually says nothing. Who needs to address and counter historical racism? Who needs to establish protections for the most economically vulnerable? Who is taking away their houses and paying their sick time? Note in the rewrite below, that it is not me that is advocating for these actions; it is the author of the op-ed, but by failing to cite who is supposed to do these things, it’s far easier for her to call for them.

Active voice: State and city governments must pass rules to address historical racism and and inequities. State health officials must set up testing and contract racing in all communities, especially those the virus has had the most impact on. We need rules that slow or make more difficult home foreclosures and evictions, supply food to those who need it, establish readily available safe places for self-isolation, and mandate paid sick time for people who need to stay home.

While we have made a lot of progress and we can be proud of the contributions by so many Bostonians, we still have a long journey ahead. We cannot make the rest of this journey safely as individuals. We need to band together to rebuild trust so that we can again act as one.

I have only one question about the conclusion. Who is this “we?”

Passive op-eds change nothing

Why write an op-ed that just says “things must be changed?” Everyone reading it says “Sure, yeah, but that’s not my problem.

Anyone can complain. And “in these unprecedented times” (cough, cough), whining is one thing we have plenty of.

Tell us who is responsible.

Tell us who will be changing what they do.

Tell us how they will make the change.

Then you may actually make a difference, instead of just impotently whining.

One response to “Passive voice editorials flinch from the truth

  1. I’m no longer a college professor, but at least I know that I alerted my students to this grammar crime against humanity. I just hope that they remember it.

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