A wooden sculpture of Pinocchio, with a long nose to suggest he is lying about something.

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.

Ello! I love you, let me jump in your game!

This is a guest post contributed by Anuj Srivas. Formerly a tech. reporter and writer for The Hindu, he’s now pursuing an MSc. at the Oxford Internet Institute, and blogging for Sciblogger.

If there were ever an artifact to which Marshall McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’ would be best applicable, it would be Ello. The rapidly-growing social network – much like the EU’s ‘right to be forgotten’ – is quickly turning out to be something of a Rorschach test: people look at it and see what they wish to see.

Like all political slogans, Ello’s manifest is becoming an inkblot onto which we can project our innermost ideologies. It is almost instructive to look at the wide range of reactions, if only for the fact that it tells us something about the way in which we will build the future of the Web.

Optimists and advocates of privacy take a look at Ello and see the start of something new, or view it as a chance to refresh the targeted-advertising foundations of our Web. The most sceptical of this lot, however, point towards the company’s venture capital funding and sneer.

Technology and business analysts look at Ello and see a failed business model; one that is doomed from the start. Feminists and other minority activists look at the company’s founders and notice the appalling lack of diversity. Utopian Internet intellectuals like Clay Shirky see Ello as a way to reclaim conversational discourse on the Internet, even if it doesn’t quite achieve it just yet.

What do I see in the Ello inkblot? Two things.

The first is that Ello, if it gains enough traction, will become an example of whether the free market is capable of providing a social network alternative that respects privacy.

For the last decade, one of the biggest debates among netizens has been whether we should take steps (legal or otherwise) to safeguard values such as privacy on the Internet. One of the most vocal arguments against this has been that “if the demand for the privacy is so great, then the market will notice the demand and find some way to supply it”.

Ello is seemingly the first proper, privacy-caring, centralized social network that the market has spit out (Diaspora was more of a social creation that was designed to radically change online social networks, which was in all likelihood what caused its stagnation). In this way, the VC funding gives Ello a greater chance to provide a better experience – even if it does prove to be the spark that leads to the company’s demise.

If Ello succeeds and continues to stick to its espoused principles, then that’s one argument settled.

The second point pertains to all that Ello does not represent. Sociologist Nathan Jurgensen has an excellent post on Ello where he lashes out at how online social networks are still being built by only technology geeks. He writes:

This [Ello] is yet another example of social media built by coders and entrepreneurs, but no central role for those expert in thinking about and researching the social world. The people who have decided they should mediate our social interactions and write a political manifesto have no special expertise in the social or political.

I cannot emphasize this point enough. One of the more prominent theories regarding technology and its implications is the ‘social shaping of technology’. It theorizes that technology is not born and developed in a vacuum – it is instead very much shaped and created by relevant social groups. There is little doubt that much of today’s technology and online services is skewed very disproportionately – the number of social groups that are involved in the creation of an online social network is minuscule compared to the potential reach and influence of the final product. Ello is no different when it comes to this.

It is a combination of these two points that sums up the current, almost tragic state of affairs. The technology and digital tools of today are very rarely created, or deployed, keeping in mind the needs of the citizen. They usually are brought to life from some entrepreneur’s or venture capitalist’s PowerPoint presentation and then applied to real world situations.

Is Ello the anti-Facebook that we need? Perhaps. Is it the one we deserve? Probably not.