January 17, 2014

My brother frequently drives from New Jersey to New York across the George Washington Bridge to visit our 94-year-old mom. Her name is Shirley Clark, and she likes Chris Christie. She prefers her politicians to be straight talkers. She would agree with George Orwell that the best political rhetoric is “demotic,” a fancy word for the “voice of the people.”

If I could bring Orwell back from his early grave, I would have loved to have sat next to him during the New Jersey governor’s press conference apologizing for dirty political tricks, or at his subsequent State of the State of New Jersey speech. Based on what Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language,” I think he would have given the governor a mixed grade.

Reviewing Christie’s words, there are moments when he seems to take responsibility for the traffic disasters as political vendetta in the city of Fort Lee. He says, for example, “I apologize to the people of Fort Lee” and “ultimately I am responsible for what happens under my watch – the good and the bad.”

Some other words bump into such expressions of accountability. In both speeches he used a version of the common evasion “mistakes were made.” To the legislature, he said: “Mistakes were clearly made, and as a result we let down people we’re entrusted to serve.”

BuzzFeed called out the governor out for this usage, atop several historical examples from “scandal-plagued presidents and administrations.” Andrew Kaczynski cites William Safire’s definition of the “famous phrase”:

mistakes were made: A passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it.

The key word in that definition is “passive,” referring to a crucial rhetorical distinction, the difference between types of verbs. Centuries of writers and speakers in American and British English express a preference for the “active voice,” where the subject of a sentence performs the action of the verb. “I made mistakes” is brief, direct, and responsible. The passive construction, “mistakes were made,” conceals the actor.

(It’s worth noting that Christie’s use of the phrase is followed by the first person plural pronoun “we let people down,” which waters down the sense of accountability.)

Almost a century ago, the British scholar Arthur Quiller-Couch drew up his rules for straight prose and encouraged his students to use active verbs and avoid the “stationary passive.”

After World War II, Orwell wrote that responsible political writers should “never use the passive where you can use the active.”

In “The Elements of Style,” William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White are more moderate: “The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.”

Confusing “voice” with “tense,” Stephen King testifies in his otherwise excellent book “On Writing” that “I’ve been pretty good about avoiding the passive tense.”

I once advised a young husband never to apologize to his wife in the passive voice: “Your complaints have been heard, and it must be admitted, that the garbage was not dragged to the curb.”

On and on it goes in writing books and lectures across the English-speaking world, spilling over into absurd and impossible advice such as “avoid the passive voice” or “delete all uses of the passive voice.” Perhaps the most controversial chapter I’ve ever written (it’s in my book “Writing Tools”) encourages writers to be “passive aggressive” — that is, to use the passive to shine a light on the receiver or victim of action.

In his book “Zoo Story,” Thomas French writes about an orphaned chimp named Herman: “He was taken from his mother as an infant…then was eventually brought to Florida and donated to the zoo, where he was installed inside a cage and taught to depend on the imperfect love of strangers.” All those constructions are passive, and appropriately so. Herman is the victim of these actions. He is passive. But he goes from being a pauper to the prince of a zoo where “he charmed Jane Goodall, threw dirt at the mayor of Tampa, learned to clap and smoke cigarettes, whatever it took to entertain the masses.” In this context, the chimp has become an agent, and the verbs are appropriately active.

But this rhetorical sense of victimization can have its political purposes too, as Chris Christie’s language reveals. “Well, let me tell you, everybody,” he said to the press, “I was blindsided yesterday morning.” Blindsided. He didn’t tackle anyone — he was tackled. Think of the quarterback looking for a receiver on the left, only to be crushed by a linebacker he did not see on his right – his blind side.

“I am embarrassed and humiliated” – more passive constructions from Christie – “by the conduct of some of the people on my team.”

“But people,” he concludes, “all across this state understand that human beings are not perfect and mistakes are made.”

I can’t prove this, but I’m beginning to see “human beings are not perfect,” or “I never claimed to be perfect,” or “nobody is perfect” as variants of a phrase that may be catching up to “mistakes were made” as a candidate for the political evasion hall of fame.

Related links:
Transcript: Gov. Chris Christie News Conference (Jan. 9)

CSPAN Video: Gov. Chris Christie News Conference (Jan. 9)

Transcript: New Jersey State of the State Address (Jan. 14)

CSPAN Video: New Jersey State of the State Address (Jan. 14)

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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