IN my 13-year experience of teaching the English language, I never realised how devastating and embarrassing the impact of ‘passive voice’ could be until recently when I started researching the discourses on social, electronic and print media concerning domestic violence, gender discrimination, sexual abuse, honour-killings, intolerance, bigotry and patriarchy.
As a language teacher, I have always taught why and when it is necessary to use either the active or the passive voice. The latter keeps the doer of the action secret and protected, while the subject is in the highlighted position because the doer is either unknown or insignificant to be talked about.
This practice of covering the doer of an action, in many ways, makes the lives of the victims and their families more miserable and distressing. Journalistic writing prefers using the passive voice to avoid placing the blame on anyone until proven guilty. However, a string of brutal murders of young women and many other such incidents have made me realise how cruel the use of passive voice can be. When the criminals are known, using passive constructions is like providing a protective shield to the culprits even when they are caught red-handed.
The voice and visuals of the media have now become much stronger and influential than ever before. It is time to put emphasis on the perpetrators rather than the victims, and adopt a discourse of sensibility which will spotlight the evil-doers, underscoring their brutality and inhumanity.
For instance, instead of writing ‘she was raped’, we should write ‘he raped her’; not ‘she was beheaded’, but ‘he beheaded her’. The passive construction diverts the attention from the culprit to the victim. Hence, the victim, who needs to be protected, becomes the talk of the town and the one responsible for the crime remains away with the media focus and the larger public discourse.
The use of active voice will act as an agent of the discourse of sensibility, which is much needed in this age of linguistic impressions. Using the passive voice has political correctness associated with it which has a bearing on social ethics.
The media needs to sensitise the masses with its use of language. It needs to use the empathic active voice to give voice to the voiceless in society without discrimination.
Dr Sumera Umrani
Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2021