The Purpose of the Passive: Pacification

Murdered. Not Died.

We are all familiar with subtleties in language -and their devious uses. In the Brown v. Board of Education case, the word “deliberate” was inserted in front of the word “speed” so that racist communities could be just that- deliberate and dilatory in upholding the law of the land, with the result that even 66 years later, schools are segregated, separate, and unequal.

A stray word or two, a spurious comma, a seemingly benign substitution or interposition of words, can have profound effects. As such, language has two faces: Beautiful and frightening at once.

Well, here we are again. George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight by a White policeman while three members of his brethren stood there unmoved by the victim’s pleas for his life. Needless to say, George Floyd was Black. He joins Philando, Trayvon, Botham, Michael, Ahmaud, Breonna, Tamir and hundreds of others in that terrible club of Black Americans mowed down by White authorities and vigilantes.

Notice two of the verbs in the preceding paragraph: “Murdered” and “Mowed down.” These are active verbs — that implicate a subject and define an object.

On the other hand notice the number of articles, TV commentaries, and other communiques that tell us that George Floyd “died.” Now, he did indeed die. He died as the result of violence perpetrated upon him by a representative of the State. But the point of the construction “he died” is to avoid the suggestion that in fact this death was not a natural or random occurrence but was instead the result of a deliberate, vicious, racist act. Death needn’t have a villain. Murder does.

The purpose of this passive construction is to pacify us. It is to exonerate. The purpose is to beguile us into mourning in some general, ethereal, and philosophical matter but not to take clear action against people and institutions of clear villainy. The purpose of passive construction is to offer up even just a scintilla of doubt about the crime so that theories can be propounded, the sort of theories that always end up in breathless expressions of “it was a good shoot” so common in the Cop shows we all watch. No, no way, would “Benson” or “Stabler” ever do anything to murder someone!

Now, imagine that the racial tables were turned. That a young, attractive white woman “met her fate” and “died.” It so happens that she was murdered by a member of a racial minority. But the press kept suggesting that she “died” and propounded theories about her own complicity. Maybe she stole a dress from the store? Maybe she was “seen” weeks before at a bar that was later identified as a place where drug transactions take place? Maybe she shorted the cashier at Subway…

Imagine all you want because it wouldn’t happen. Headlines of “Murder” would adorn the pages. They’d be accompanied by data and graphs about murders done by minorities. There would be no articles about how the accused murderer might have had a bad day or was “just such a fine neighbor, always so helpful.” It wouldn’t happen. The verbs would be active and the indignation too.

But, no, not for George Floyd. Nope.




Romi Mahajan in an Author, Marketer, Investor, and Activist

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romi mahajan

romi mahajan

Romi Mahajan in an Author, Marketer, Investor, and Activist

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