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.

A wooden sculpture of the three monkeys sitting on a bench, under a blue sky with a few wispy white clouds.

In defence of ignorance

Wish I may, wish I might
Have this wish, I wish tonight
I want that star, I want it now
I want it all and I don’t care how

Metallica, King Nothing

I’m a news editor who frequently uses Twitter to find new stories to work on or follow up. Since the lockdown began, however, I’ve been harbouring a fair amount of FOMO born, ironically, from the fact that the small pool of in-house reporters and the larger pool of freelancers I have access to are all confined to their homes, and there’s much less opportunity than usual to step out, track down leads and assimilate ground reports. And Twitter – the steady stream of new information from different sources – has simply accentuated this feeling, instead of ameliorating it by indicating that other publications are covering what I’m not. No, Twitter makes me feel like I want it all.

I’m sure this sensation is the non-straightforward product of human psychology and how social media companies have developed algorithms to take advantage of it, but I’m fairly certain (despite the absence of a personal memory to corroborate this opinion) that individual minds of the pre-social-media era weren’t marked by FOMO, and more certain that they were marked less so. I also believe one of the foremost offshoots of the prevalence of such FOMO is the idea that one can be expected to have an opinion on everything.

FOMO – the ‘fear of missing out’ – is essentially defined by a desire to participate in activities that, sometimes, we really needn’t participate in, but we think we need to simply by dint of knowing about those activities. Almost as if the brains of humans had become habituated to making decisions about social participation based solely on whether or not we knew of them, which if you ask me wouldn’t be such a bad hypothesis to apply to the pre-information era, when you found out about a party only if you were the intended recipient of the message that ‘there is a party’.

However, most of us today are not the intended recipients of lots of information. This seems especially great for news but it also continuously undermines our ability to stay in control of what we know or, more importantly, don’t know. And when you know, you need to participate. As a result, I sometimes devolve into a semi-nervous wreck reading about the many great things other people are doing, and sharing their experiences on Twitter, and almost involuntarily develop a desire to do the same things. Now and then, I even sense the seedling of regret when I look at a story that another news outlet has published, but which I thought I knew about before but simply couldn’t pursue, aided ably by the negative reinforcement of the demands on me as a news editor.

Recently, as an antidote to this tendency – and drawing upon my very successful, and quite popular, resistance to speaking Hindi simply because a misguided interlocutor presumes I know the language – I decided I would actively ignore something I’m expected to have an opinion on but there being otherwise no reason that I should. Such a public attitude exists, though it’s often unspoken, because FOMO has successfully replaced curiosity or even civic duty as the prime impetus to seek new information on the web. (Obviously, this has complicated implications, such as we see in the dichotomy of empowering more people to speak truth to power versus further tightening the definitions of ‘expert’ and ‘expertise’; I’m choosing to focus on the downsides here.)

As a result, the world seems to be filled with gas-bags, some so bloated I wonder why they don’t just float up and fuck off. And I’ve learnt that the hardest part of the antidote is to utter the words that FOMO has rendered most difficult to say: “I don’t know”.

A few days ago, I was chatting with The Soufflé when he invited me to participate in a discussion about The German Ideology that he was preparing for. You need to know that The Soufflé is a versatile being, a physicist as well as a pluripotent scholar, but more importantly The Soufflé knows what most pluripotent scholars don’t: that no matter how much one is naturally gifted to learn this or that, knowing something needs not just work but also proof of work. I refused The Soufflé’s invitation, of course; my words were almost reflexive, eager to set some distance between myself and the temptation to dabble in something just because it was there to dabble. The Soufflé replied,

I think it was in a story by Borges, one of the characters says “Every man should be capable of all ideas, and I believe that in the future he will be.” 🙂

To which I said,

That was when the world was simpler. Now there’s a perverse expectation that everyone should have opinions on everything. I don’t like it, and sometimes I actively stay away from some things just to be able to say I don’t want to have an opinion on it. Historical materialism may or may not be one of those things, just saying.

Please bear with me, this is leading up to something I’d like to include here. The Soufflé then said,

I’m just in it for the sick burns. 😛 But OK, I get it. Why do you think that expectation exists, though? I mean, I see it too. Just curious.

Here I set out my FOMO hypothesis. Then he said,

I guess this is really a topic for a cultural critic, I’m just thinking out loud… but perhaps it is because ignorance no longer finds its antipode in understanding, but awareness? To be aware is to be engaged, to be ‘caught up’ is to be active. This kind of activity is low-investment, and its performance aided by social media?

If you walked up to people today and asked “What do you think about factory-farmed poultry?” I’m pretty sure they’d find it hard to not mention that it’s cruel and wrong, even if they know squat about it. So they’re aware, they have possibly a progressive view on the issue as well, but there’s no substance underneath it.

Bingo.

We’ve become surrounded by socio-cultural forces that require us to know, know, know, often sans purpose or context. But ignorance today is not such a terrible thing. There are so many people who set out to know, know, know so many of the wrong ideas and lessons that conspiracy theories that once languished on the fringes of society have moved to the centre, and for hundreds of millions of people around the world stupid ideas have become part of political ideology.

Then there are others who know but don’t understand – which is a vital difference, of the sort that The Soufflé pointed out, that noted scientist-philosophers have sensibly caricatured as the difference between the thing and the name of the thing. Knowing what the four laws of thermodynamics or the 100+ cognitive biases are called doesn’t mean you understand them – but it’s an extrapolation that social-media messaging’s mandated brevity often pushes us to make. Heck, I know of quite a few people who are entirely blind to this act of extrapolation, conflating the label with the thing itself and confidently penning articles for public consumption that betrays a deep ignorance (perhaps as a consequence of the Dunning-Kruger effect) of the subject matter – strong signals that they don’t know it in their bones but are simply bouncing off of it like light off the innards of a fractured crystal.

I even suspect the importance and value of good reporting is lost on too many people because those people don’t understand what it takes to really know something (pardon the polemic). These are the corners the push to know more, all the time, often even coupled to capitalist drives to produce and consume, has backed us to. And to break free, we really need to embrace that old virtue that has been painted a vice: ignorance. Not the ignorance of conflation nor the ignorance of the lazy but the cultivated ignorance of those who recognise where knowledge ends and faff begins. Ignorance that’s the anti-thing of faff.