The Importance of the Passive Voice.

 The passive voice allows us to posit ideas and scenarios in ways that are open. They allow for a multitude of people to be both cause and effect in the scenario. They turn the focus away from the individual and towards the idea at stake. The rejection of the passive voice is the rejection of possibility, openness, and imagination.

Compare these statements: “X could be understood in terms of Y” rather than “X is a function of Y,” These appear to be very similar, but they have very important distinctions. The latter is certain and definite, while the former allows for interpretation, disagreement, caveats and qualifications. While some scoff at this as weak hedging, I steadfastly maintain that there is a general value in allowing others to build on an interpretation. Moreover, the more we are inclined to think and speak of the world in definite terms that do not permit multiple interpretations, the more difficult it is for our minds to face situations of disagreement and multiple perspectives. I think our language has developed an active and passive voice as a reflection of the understanding that some parts of our reality are objective and concrete while others are subjective and abstract. (Also, there are times that we want to focus on the actor and there are times that we want to call attention to the action.)

Though there are many inappropriate uses for the passive voice, it is dangerously narrow-minded to instruct students to simply avoid the passive voice without properly explaining why. I use the passive voice often when writing because it serves my goals for the type of writing I tend to do. Without an understanding of what the passive is and why it might be useful, I could not make a deliberate choice either to use or not use the passive voice. To truly allow someone to choose not to write passive, they must be taught when and why they should write passively.


Misunderstanding Irony and Satire Leads to New Culture

People argue a lot over the meaning of the word “irony.” It is one of the key words or terms to describe a great portion of my generation, and yet we seem very lost as to its meaning. Some would say that the combination of the overwhelming importance of understanding the meaning and the widespread disagreement as to its meaning might constitute a sort of irony. I won’t attempt a perfect definition here, but I will point out that irony, as a device, often requires a (sharp) contrast between metamessage and message (or prima facie message or face message).

Irony requires bouncing or reflecting something off of a current idea, more, or status quo. If the audience does not recognize the original idea that is the subject of the irony or satire, the audience may think the ironic image is the actual image, either embracing or hating it while missing the point being made about the intended subject of irony. Interpretation, readership, authorship, and communication theories bear on this.

But who would miss commonly known social mores and ideas or fail to notice references that are core currency of cultural thought, much less fail to completely grasp the subject before them that is the present component of the irony? Children and adolescents are prime candidates for being just such misinterpreters, and are also all the more likely to mimic and adopt what they perceive as the outlook, view, approach, conception, interpretation, etc. that is being “promoted.” I recall when The Colbert Report was new to television: many conservative teens blogged about their new hero. They failed to grasp the satire and irony at work (at least initially).  This is one way a culture can evolve: older generations reference notions that are well known to them but not the younger generation, using advanced or complex mechanisms unfamiliar to the younger generation, and a misunderstanding or misinterpretation is adopted.

This can also hold back social progress. Suppose I make satirical or ironic comments about racism or patriarchy. I may be seeking to undermine the authority of these ideas or institutions, but an audience without the same background as myself might misunderstand my statements by taking them at a literal face-value and interpret them as promotions of what I seek to undermine. In this case, those who share my actual sentiments might denounce me as their opposition as my arguments against a thing are seen as arguments in favor of it.

Artists (poets, writers, painters, film makers, critics, etc.) often use tools beyond the on-the-face-message to emphasize their points.  Audiences often neglect to examine the less obvious parts of a text presented to them -the overall structure, the timing, what is absent- and consider how those impact the surface of the text’s message. We don’t miss some non-essential, fun, bonus feature when we don’t critically examine a text- sometimes, we read the text backwards and upside down and take exactly the opposite meaning away. Perhaps that doesn’t always have to be bad, but it’s worth being aware of it when it happens.