Posts Tagged ‘communications’

My high school English teacher detested the “passive voice,” viewing it as a weak and even cowardly form of expression. Although I’ve never been able to muster her level of outrage at a sentence that reads, say, “There were seventy people present” instead of “Seventy people attended,” I prefer my nouns clear and my verbs active, the better to know who did what to whom. Which is why I’m tempted to tear my hair out whenever I hear the phrase “mistakes were made.”

You’d think a sentence that is fast becoming a parody of itself would have the good grace to retire but no, the damn thing seems determined to stay the course. Even the Coast Guard threw out those passively potent words in addressing accusations that it was slow to respond to the recent and potentially catastrophic oil spill in San Francisco Bay.  The phrase seems to have originated, at least in its present almost aggressively passive incarnation, with none other than Richard Nixon (more on that later). You’ll find it in Ronald Reagan’s address to the joint session of Congress in 1987 in regard to the Iran arms-for-hostages situation, and even earlier as an all-purpose explanation for the ethical imbroglios that plagued Bill Clinton’s first term. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales relied on it to explain away the firings of eight U.S attorneys. Several members of the current Administration use the phrase regularly as a way of talking about the process by which the U.S government has, um, er, processed the war in Iraq.

Author Charles Baxter, writing about recent influences on fiction in his book “Burning Down the House” contends that Richard Nixon is “the inventor, for our purposes and for our time, of the concept of deniability. Deniability is the almost complete disavowal of intention in relation to bad consequences.” Baxter’s thesis is that fiction is more challenged because, in the public arena, politicians and leaders feel free to alter their “narratives” to be misleading or confusing or vague.

Actually, public confidence is what is challenged. Whenever a prominent figure in a position of importance says “mistakes were made,” you can be sure that responsibility is evaded, accountability is denied and the buck is passed.

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