Monday, January 22, 2018

The language we use

I will never forget my English teacher from 7th grade. She drilled into our heads the evil that is the passive voice. If we wrote a sentence using the passive voice in a paper it came back to us with a F circled at the top.

Writing should convey action, she said. Subjects do things. Things don't just happen.

I got the same lesson when I was on the student newspaper in high school. The passive voice was verboten because it said nothing. If you wrote in the passive voice you were lazy. It took a whole lot more verbiage to say nothing than it did to say something. A news article, or a story, is about someone doing something. That's what we want to read.

But that's no longer the case when it comes to the killing of unarmed black men by the police. Suddenly every journalist throws together as many sentences in the passive voice as possible in order to avoid stating who did what.

 A police officer never kills an unarmed black man. A police officer never shoots someone. Instead we read that an unarmed black man died after being shot. Or that he died as the result of a shooting.
"police kill man" (3 words) or "police tase man to death" (5 words) are exceedingly more efficient than "a person died after police deployed a Taser on the individual" (11 words)––a phraseology that exists solely to obscure the police's responsibility in killing someone.  
-- Adam H. Johnson
That language is used to cover up the truth. It's used to put the blame on the victim instead of the officer who pulled the trigger. And journalists do it all the time. Instead of reporting the facts, they repeat the police account of the incident. Instead of asking difficult questions, they blindly accept the official version. It's cheap and it's lazy.

Then the journalist proceeds to tell us that the victim wasn't a victim but a suspect or defendant or alleged prowler or whatever other words are used to convey that he wasn't a victim of police violence. We are told he had a criminal record - even though the officer who killed him didn't know it at the time he pulled the trigger. We are told he had a criminal record because it makes him less of a victim.

By the use of language, we are told that each of these incidents of police violence are isolated incidents, unfortunate accidents really, in which no one intended for anyone to die. It's like we are supposed to believe that the gun just magically jumped out of the officer's holder and fired itself as the officer looked on in stunned horror as an innocent person was killed. In reality the officer took his gun out of his holster, looked through the sight (or down the barrel) and made the conscious decision to pull the trigger.

But that's an account you will never read in your local paper because that is an account that puts the blame squarely on the person with the gun.

h/t Adam H. Johnson

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