The passive is political

If Saruman is the stupid shit people say, I have often found Grima Wormtongue is the use of the passive voice. To the uninitiated: Wormtongue was a slimy fellow on Saruman’s side in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. He was much, much less powerful compared to Saruman, but fed the wizard’s ego, lubricated the passage of his dubious ideas into action, and slipped poison into the ears and minds of those who would listen to him.

The passive is useful to attribute to others something you would rather not be the originator of yourself, but which you would like to be true. Or to invoke facts without also invoking the dubious credentials of the person or circumstance that birthed it. Or to dress up your ignorance in the ‘clinical-speak’ that the scientific literature prizes. Or to admit fewer avenues of disagreement. Or, in its most insidious form, to suggest that the message matters a lot more than the context.

Yes, sometimes the passive voice is warranted – often, in my experience, when the point is to maintain sharp focus on a particular idea, concept, etc. in a larger article. This condition is important: the writer or speaker needs to justify the use of the passive voice, in keeping with the deviation from normal that it is.

Of course, you could contend that the creator’s message is the creator’s own, and that they do get to craft it the way they wish. I would contend in return that this is absolutely true – but the question of passive v. active voice arises more pronouncedly in the matter of how the creator’s audience is directed to perceive that message. That is, the creator can use whatever voice they wish, but using one over the other (obviously) changes the meaning and, more importantly, the context they wish the reader to assume.

For example, writing “The ball was thrown” is both a statement that the ball was thrown and an indication to the reader that the identity of the thrower is not relevant.

And because of the specific ways in which the passive voice is bad, the creator effectively puts themselves in a position where the audience could accuse them of deliberately eliding important information. In fact, the creator would open themselves up to this line of inquiry, if not interrogation, even if the line is a dead-end or if the creator actually doesn’t deserve to be accused.

Even more specifically, the use of the passive voice is a loaded affair. I have encountered only a very small number of people writing in the mainstream press who actively shun the passive voice, in favour of the active, or at least have good reasons to adopt the passive. Most writers frequently adopt the passive – and passively so – without acknowledging that this voice can render the text in political shades even if the writer didn’t intend it.

I encountered an opinion of remarkable asininity a few minutes ago, which prompted this little note, and which also serves to illustrate my message.

“One aspect that needs to be considered,” “it is sometimes said,” “remain deprived of sex,” “it is believed that in June alone”. In a conversation with The Soufflé some two years ago, about why middle-aged and older men – those not of our generation, so to speak – harbour so many foolish ideas, he said one reason has to be that when these men sit in their living rooms and enter into lengthy monologues about what they believe, no one challenges them.

Of course, in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society, older men will only brook fewer challenges to their authority (or none at all). I think the passive voice is a syntactic choice that together with the fondness for it removes yet another challenge – one unique to the beautiful act of writing – that a creator may encounter during the act of creation, or at least which facilitates a way to create something that otherwise may not have survived the very act of creation.

In Katju’s case, for example, the second third instances of the passive voice could have given him pause. “It is sometimes said” in the active becomes “X has said” or “X says”, subsequently leading to the question of who ‘X’ is and whether their claim is still right, relevant and/or good.

As I mentioned earlier, the passive voice serves among other reasons to preclude the points or counts on which a reader may raise objections. However, writing – one way or another – is an act of decentralising or at least sharing power, the power inherent in the creator’s knowledge that is now available to others as well, more so in the internet age. Fundamentally, to write is to open the gates through which flow the opportunities for your readers to make decisions based on different bits and kinds of information. And in this exercise, to bar some of these gates can only be self-defeating.

Scientists drafting technical manuscripts – the documents I encounter most often that are brimming with the passive voice – may see less value in writing “X designed the experiment to do Y” than “the experiment was designed to go Y”. But I can think of no reason writing in the active would diminish the manuscript’s credentials, even if it may not serve to improve them either – at least not 99% of the time. I do think that 1% of the time, using the active voice by way of habit could help improve the way we do science, for example by allowing other researchers conducting meta-analyses to understand the role of human actions in the performance of an experiment or, perhaps, to discern the gender, age or qualification of those researchers most often involved in designing experiments v. performing them.

Then again, science is a decidedly, and unfortunately, asocial affair, and the ‘amount’ of behavioural change required to have scientists regularly privilege the active over the passive is high.

This shouldn’t be the case vis-à-vis writers writing for the mainstream press – a domain in which the social matters just as much as the scientific, but often much more. Here, to recall the famous words of Marshall McLuhan, the actor is often the act (perhaps simply reflecting our times – in which to be a passive bystander to acts of violence is to condone the violence itself).

And when Markandey Katju, no less than a former judge of the Supreme Court of India, invokes claims while suppressing their provenance, it quickly becomes a political choice. It is as if (I think) he is thinking, “I don’t care if this is true or not; I must find a way to make this point so that I can then go on to link rapes to unemployment, especially the unemployment brought on by the BJP’s decisions.”

I concede that the act of writing presents a weak challenge – but it is a challenge nonetheless, and which you can strengthen through habituation.

Science journalism, expertise and common sense

On March 27, the Johns Hopkins University said an article published on the website of the Centre For Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy (CDDEP), a Washington-based think tank, had used its logo without permission and distanced itself from the study, which had concluded that the number of people in India who could test positive for the new coronavirus could swell into the millions by May 2020. Soon after, a basement of trolls latched onto CDDEP founder-director Ramanan Laxminarayan’s credentials as an economist to dismiss his work as a public-health researcher, including denying the study’s conclusions without discussing its scientific merits and demerits.

A lot of issues are wound up in this little controversy. One of them is our seemingly naïve relationship with expertise.

Expertise is supposed to be a straightforward thing: you either have it or you don’t. But just as specialised knowledge is complicated, so too is expertise.

Many of us have heard stories of someone who’s great at something “even though he didn’t go to college” and another someone who’s a bit of a tubelight “despite having been to Oxbridge”. Irrespective of whether they’re exceptions or the rule, there’s a lot of expertise in the world that a deference to degrees would miss.

More importantly, by conflating academic qualifications with expertise, we risk flattening a three-dimensional picture to one. For example, there are more scientists who can speak confidently about statistical regression and the features of exponential growth than there are who can comment on the false vacua of string theory or discuss why protein folding is such a hard problem to solve. These hierarchies arise because of differences in complexity. We don’t have to insist only a virologist or an epidemiologist is allowed to answer questions about whether a clinical trial was done right.

But when we insist someone is not good enough because they have a degree in a different subject, we could be embellishing the implicit assumption that we don’t want to look beyond expertise, and are content with being told the answers. Granted, this argument is better directed at individuals privileged enough to learn something new every day, but maintaining this chasm – between who in the public consciousness is allowed to provide answers and who isn’t – also continues to keep power in fewer hands.

Of course, many questions that have arisen during the coronavirus pandemic have often stood between life and death, and it is important to stay safe. However, there is a penalty to think the closer we drift towards expertise, the safer we become — because then we may be drifting away from common sense and accruing a different kind of burden, especially when we insist only specialised experts can comment on a far less specialist topic. Such convictions have already created a class of people that believes ad hominem is a legitimate argumentative ploy, and won’t back down from an increasingly acrimonious quarrel until they find the cherry-picked data they have been looking for.

Most people occupy a less radical but still problematic position: even when neither life nor fortune is at stake, they claim to wait for expertise to change one’s behaviour and/or beliefs. Most of them are really waiting for something that arrived long ago and are only trying to find new ways to persist with the status quo. The all-or-nothing attitude of the rest – assuming they exist – is, simply put, epistemologically inefficient.

Our deference to the views of experts should be a function of how complex it really is and therefore the extent to which it can be interrogated. So when the topic at hand is whether a clinical trial was done right or whether the Indian Council of Medical Research is testing enough, the net we cast to find independent scientists to speak to can include those who aren’t medical researchers but whose academic or vocational trajectories familiarised them to some parts of these issues as well as who are transparent about their reasoning, methods and opinions. (The CDDEP study is yet to reveal its methods, so I don’t want to comment specifically on it.)

If we can’t be sure if the scientist we’re speaking to is making sense, obviously it would be better to go with someone whose words we can just trust. And if we’re not comfortable having such a negotiated relationship with an expert – sadly, it’s always going to be this way. The only way to make matters simpler is by choosing to deliberately shut ourselves off, to take what we’re hearing and, instead of questioning it further, running with it.

This said, we all shut ourselves off at one time or another. It’s only important that we do it knowing we do it, instead of harbouring pretensions of superiority. At no point does it become reasonable to dismiss anyone based on their academic qualifications alone the way, say, Times of India and OpIndia have done (see below).

What’s more, Dr Giridhar Gyani is neither a medical practitioner nor epidemiologist. He is academically an electrical engineer, who later did a PhD in quality management. He is currently director general at Association of Healthcare Providers (India).

Times of India, March 28

Ramanan Laxminarayanan, who was pitched up as an expert on diseases and epidemics by the media outlets of the country, however, in reality, is not an epidemiologist. Dr Ramanan Laxminarayanan is not even a doctor but has a PhD in economics.

OpIndia, March 22

Expertise has been humankind’s way to quickly make sense of a world that has only been becoming more confusing. But historically, expertise has also been a reason of state, used to suppress dissenting voices and concentrate political, industrial and military power in the hands of a few. The former is in many ways a useful feature of society for its liberating potential while the latter is undesirable because it enslaves. People frequently straddle both tendencies together – especially now, with the government in charge of the national anti-coronavirus response.

An immediately viable way to break this tension is to negotiate our relationship with experts themselves.

Something worse than a flat-Earth society

Read two interesting articles this morning:

1. An editorial in the Indian Express about how India is the “land of the gullible”, where even the “mere trappings of science suffice to tantalise” people into believing BS and coughing up fortunes for snake oil.

2. An article in The Conversation about where flat-Earthers draw their sense of purpose from: the separation of science from scientific institutions. It’s a fascinating analysis of the ‘knowledge is power’ social paradigm, how 21st century ICT is destabilising it and unto what consequences.

The typical Indian experience (of public scientific temperament) relates to both texts. In a country where two people can borrow Rs 1.43 crore to build a machine that purportedly generates electricity from thunderbolts in space (and which for some reason is called a “rice puller”), it’s a sign that laypeople’s idea of what constitutes science has already been separated from that practised at scientific institutions.

The non-admission of traditional knowledge into the modern scientific method has meant that many Indians have – by way of traditional practices and rituals – already constructed a parallel scientific tradition that accrued power in time, just the way the Baconian tradition has. These ‘alternatives’ are both credible – like environmentalism*, yoga, philosophy*, etc. – and incredible – such as astrology*, ayurveda, unani, etc.

However, because many of us have become “used” to the idea that science needn’t be the exclusive preserve of scientists, we’re also not surprised when we encounter it outside of scientific institutions. To most people who believe in the curative power of these alternatives, for example, science rests with scientists as much as with those who are well-versed in the body of knowledge that birthed the alternatives. And it’s important to single out the Indian experience because, in a manner of speaking, we’ve currently got it worse than flat-Earth societies.

Now, some people will pipe up and say “not all of us are irrational” but that would miss the point entirely – just the way ‘not all men’ is no credible defence against feminists’ generalisation of male behaviour. It’s not individual complicity that matters but society’s inculcation of opportunities for many of us to get away with whatever we’ve done that does.

The modern scientific method delegitimised a lot of traditional knowledge, especially sidelining astrology and homeopathy and exiling those who were authorities in those fields to the fringe – just the way flat-Earthers of yore had been disenfranchised by 20th century institutions powered by political distrust, war and espionage. Now, with rising internet penetration and access to the social media, flat-Earthers are interrogating what scientists have claimed is the truth.

But in India, especially among Hindutva ‘scholars’, we’ve been witnessing the opposite: ex-masters not interrogating the methods of knowledge production that threaten their authority but simply trying to undermine them. (E.g. “the Vedas already knew this 3,000 years ago so you’re dumb”.) This to me is eminently worse than what flat-Earthers are trying to do; their industry at least suggests an attempt at disceptation, as opposed to an impulse to completely shut out the opposite side. As Harry Dyer, the author of the article, writes,

… four flat earthers debated three physics PhD students [at the convention Dyer was attending]. A particular point of contention occurred when one of the physicists pleaded with the audience to avoid trusting YouTube and bloggers. The audience and the panel of flat earthers took exception to this, noting that “now we’ve got the internet and mass communication … we’re not reliant on what the mainstream are telling us in newspapers, we can decide for ourselves”.

… Flat earthers were encouraged to trust “poetry, freedom, passion, vividness, creativity, and yearning” over the more clinical regurgitation of established theories and facts. Attendees were told that “hope changes everything”, and warned against blindly trusting what they were told.

On the other hand, ‘blindly trusting what we’re told’ rings a bell on our side of the world, or at least that yet more charlatans lie in the wait to dupe us. As the Indian Express editorial finishes,

Remember [Ramar Pillai,] who cooked up hydrocarbons from herbal messes by the simple expedient of secreting some fuel in the stirrer? He had a bull run with the press, and even some scientists were prepared to look seriously at a man who was claiming to violate all the laws of thermodynamics. Fortunately, the “rice puller” has been stopped in its tracks before it could become a craze. But we won’t have to wait too long before the spirit of Ramar Pillai rises again.

I’m sure there’s more to be said on this subject, will continue in future posts…

*Indian traditions of it, specifically.

Featured image credit: Andrew Stutesman/Unsplash.