Evasive Passives in Texas

Ellen Bresler Rockmore, in her New York Times op-ed “How Texas Teaches History,” levels a grammatical accusation against history textbooks recently approved for use in Texas schools:

The writers’ decisions about how to construct sentences, about what the subject of the sentence will be, about whether the verb will be active or passive, shape the message that slavery was not all that bad.

This is a serious charge. The sheer scale of the Atlantic slave trade makes it possibly the worst crime against humanity ever committed. Schools should teach the truth about it.

Rockmore teaches freshman writing at Dartmouth, and she holds these beliefs about grammar and clarity:

Among the guiding principles of clear writing are these: Whenever possible, use human subjects, not abstract nouns; use active verbs, not passive. We don’t want our students to write, “Torture was used,” because that sentence obscures who was torturing whom.

These are familiar views, urged by writing-advice sources throughout the 20th century. But they have ossified into dogma, often ignorantly wielded, and may have done as much harm as good.

I was encouraged, though, to see that the clauses Rockmore cites as passives are indeed passives. You wouldn’t believe how rare this is (see my paper “Fear and Loathing of the English Passive” for naming and shaming of the guilty).

I decided to examine all of the passive clauses in the 63 sentences (922 words) from the Texas books (made available on Jezebel by Bobby Finger), to assess the strength of Rockmore’s case.

The sample contains 128 clauses, only 13 of which are passives. That’s about the average for academic prose.* However, as Rockmore alleges, an extraordinarily high percentage of these passive clauses, 86 percent of them, serve in effect to evade explicit reference to the agency, responsibility, or culpability of Southern whites in the slavery and post-slavery periods.

The clauses that I find clearly evasive are the following (I’ve underlined the auxiliary be and the lexical verb in each):

  1. [Cash crops] were sold for profit.
  2. A large workforce was needed.
  3. Families were often broken apart.
  4. A family member was sold to another owner.
  5. They were forced to immigrate to the United States.
  6. KKK members were paid to recruit new members into their world of secret rituals and racial violence.
  7. Political riots were staged.
  8. Ten to one hundred times as many Negroes were killed as whites.
  9. Blacks … were accused of violating the etiquette.
  10. Blacks [who were accused of violating the etiquette] were lynched
  11. Between 1882 and 1892, more than 1,400 African-American men and women were shot, burned, or hanged without trial in the South.

Rockmore is basically right about both the grammar and the ideological correlation: Clauses about slaves cheerfully bringing their African skills and culture to Southern plantations (many had previous experience raising cattle, slaves expressed themselves through art and dance, and so on) are always active; sentences about white Southerners’ responsibility repeatedly employ short passives in a way that conceals agency.

Nonetheless, a ban on the passive is too blunt a weapon for writing instructors to wield. Everybody’s prose has at least some passives, and they are often ethically innocent and stylistically fine, as are the other two passive clauses from the textbook sample:

12. Art and dance were heavily influenced by African traditions.
There’s no evasiveness here. This passive has a by-phrase. Both African traditions and art and dance are abstract noun phrases, so recasting this as an active would not only be tricky (the like phrase would have to be shifted to the end, for example), it would yield no stylistic benefit. Not every passive is evil!
13. Others were frustrated by their loss of political power and by the South’s economic stagnation.
No reason to rephrase this as an active either. It would be wasted work leading to worsened style. The sentence has a short human-denoting subject (others); its active counterpart would have a lengthy conjoined abstract subject. Sometimes passive voice is your friend!

Besides, many ways of being evasive have nothing to do with passives: As Rockmore notes, there are remarks like severe treatment was very common and whippings, brandings, and even worse torture were all part of American slavery, which are just as effective in masking agency and culpability.

Every student should learn enough about grammar and writing to be able to appreciate Rockmore’s point. But strict instructions to “use human subjects, not abstract nouns; use active verbs, not passive” are neither necessary nor sufficient to improve the textbooks. Writing clearly and honestly is more subtle and difficult than that.

*See the statistical table on Page 938 of Douglas Biber et al, Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Longman, 1999).

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