The bureaucratic voice presents governments and corporations as placid, apologetic, and unmovable. It also makes their victims as active as possible.
A United Airlines jets sits at the gate at Denver International Airport. (AP Photo/David Boe)
Colin Dickey | Longreads | April 2017 | 12 minutes | 3000 words
On Monday night, Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines, sent an internal email to his staff regarding the incident on Flight 3411 in which members of Chicago Aviation Security forcibly removed a customer who refused to give up his seat when asked. In the note, Munoz offered an explanation of events and a defense of both his employees and law enforcement. The email ended up on Twitter where its contents were roundly excoriated.
Munoz’s email is, in its own way, a work of art; a triumph of the willingness to pass the buck. It misstates objective facts and shifts responsibility onto the passenger, David Dao, who ended up bloody and dazed after the encounter.
As you will read, the situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers was politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Officers to help.
What struck me as I read the email is how a careful and consistent use of syntax, grammar, and diction is marshaled to make a series of points both subtle and unsubtle. On Twitter, I referred to it as a “master class in the use of the passive voice to avoid responsibility,” and followed with a few tweets that highlighted its use of language to shift the blame on to the victim.
The thread landed, at some point, in the Twitter feed of a British writer named Oliver Kamm, the author of Accidence Will Happen: A Recovering Pedant’s Guide to English Language and Style. Kamm responded that my grammatical analysis was “way out,” and over several tweets accused me of misunderstanding the passive voice and its usage in Munoz’s email. (Kamm was right in many of his criticisms: I used the phrase “it became necessary” as an example of the passive voice, which is incorrect, and in my haste I referred to “passive verbs” rather than the passive voice.)
What became clear to me in this exchange is that the passive voice is itself unsuited for the lexical landscape of United’s email, which itself is part of a larger world we now find ourselves in, where corporate and government bureaucracies rely heavily on language to shape our perception. Munoz’s email relies heavily on the passive voice to evade culpability, but he also employs a host of other rhetorical moves that collude to put the blame on the man who was assaulted and carried out on a stretcher. Like a well-trained bureaucrat, Munoz used an array of syntactical choices in a predictable, quantifiable, and deliberate manner, and it’s time we recognize it for what it is.
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