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.
When George Orwell wrote “Politics and the English Language” in 1946, he began by arguing that the English language was “in a bad way,” decaying decadently due to jargon, cliché, and imprecise thought. His examples of poor writing exhibit two main faults: “staleness of imagery” and a “lack of precision.” “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.” Orwell saw the writing of his day as consisting in “gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug,” and saw its decline as directly traceable to its lack of imagination.
The English language today is not, I would argue, in decline; it’s vibrant and flowering in multiple directions. For all its shortcomings, social media has allowed for a wide range of inventiveness of linguistic expression—the dizzying speed at which slang moves on the Internet is a testament to the continued vitality of language’s ability to capture an increasingly wide array of emotional contours of daily life.
But as users become more creative in crafting language to reflect new kinds of expression, bureaucrats get more creative in using that expression to hide the levers of power. In Orwell’s time political writing was bad because it never strayed from the party line: “It is broadly true that political writing is bad writing…. Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.” In the twenty-first century, political writing is bad because it spews bullshit in new directions, always expanding its inventiveness and the reach of its perfidy. The success of politicians like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump come from their ability to reject the party line in favor of surprising constructions of speech, even as these creations drink from the same poisoned well of dull thought.
Just as rhetoric should no longer be memorized by rote and passed down to students, bureaucracy no longer moves along predictable party lines. Political speech continues to be, as it was for Orwell, largely the defense of the indefensible, but there is no longer a one-to-one correspondence between evil thought and uninspired diction—ensuring fresh diction among students will not ensure fresh thought. We think of “Orwellian” as a shorthand for dystopia, but a more accurate definition might be a form of language whose fidelity is to institutional power at the expense of objective truth: Expect it to be constantly in flux, particularly in a landscape where political power is itself nebulous.
It’s time to move beyond the debate between passive and active voice in favor of something more responsive to the fluid nature of contemporary political language. Discussions of the passive voice have been bogged down in a war of style guides, each jockeying for supremacy in the coveted slot of required college composition textbook.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the thrust of these style guides falls back to a weird kind of masculine virility. The terms themselves—“passive” and “active”—rely heavily on received tropes of gendered norms, and for that reason alone we should be suspicious of them. So while I’m in agreement with that composition teachers and style guides should refrain from unyielding denunciations of the passive voice, there is a difference between a first-year college student’s essay and an email from the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation, just as there is a difference between our responsibilities as writers and our responsibilities as readers.
I’ll admit now that Munoz’s email is not, as I suggested on social media, a perfect use of the passive voice. What it is instead is a perfect example of the bureaucratic voice. The bureaucratic voice makes use of both active and passive constructions, but its purpose is uniform: to erase and efface any active agent on the part of the bureaucracy. Reading through his email, numerous sentences leap out—their syntax varies, but their purpose does not.
To begin with, the bureaucratic style works to erase cause. Here is Munoz’s description of the start of the incident: “On Sunday, April 9, after United Express Flight 3411 was fully boarded, United’s gate agents were approached by crewmembers that were told they needed to board the flight.” Setting aside the passengers for a second, in this sentence there are two named actors: the gate agents and the crewmembers. You might expect, then, that this all started when the crewmembers approached the gate agents and told them they needed to board the flight. However, a closer reading of the syntax implies this is not the case; the crewmembers themselves “were told they needed to board the flight.” Who told them? The sentence does not make this clear, even though it is this unnamed actor, presumably a supervisor, who set this entire chain of events in motion. Deliberately pushed back as far off the stage as possible, there is no one here to responsibly hold accountable for subsequent events.
Munoz repeatedly makes reference to established procedures: “Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.” Here we have what seems to be a nice use of the active voice: We have actors (“our employees”) and they are doing something specific. But the figures responsible for establishing procedure are nowhere to be found. Whenever possible, bureaucratic style will shift responsibility to immutable rules and directives that appear spontaneously from the ether.
When bureaucratic agency is absolutely unavoidable it will be couched in a simpering use of adverbs to clear any wrongdoing: “We politely asked” a customer to deplane, to whom “we approached… to explain apologetically,” and so forth. Only with the utmost reluctance does the state ever act, and even then it does so patiently, politely, apologetically.
Add to this the free use of obvious falsehoods. Munoz states that employees told Dao “was being denied boarding,” when in fact he was already sitting on the plane. Munoz claims employees were following United’s “involuntary denial of boarding process,” but their Denied Boarding Compensation rules cover oversold flights, and this flight was not oversold or overbooked.
In contrast, Dao himself is portrayed with a dynamic and active voice. The passenger “defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers,” he “raised his voice and refused to comply with crew member instructions,” he “repeatedly declined to leave,” and after he was forcibly removed, “he continued to resist—running back onto the aircraft in defiance of both our crew and security officials.” While the bureaucratic voice works to present governments and corporations as placid, apologetic, and unmovable, it also works to make their victims as active and vital as possible. The point, of course, is to make clear that a victim like Dao did this to himself.
Munoz employs the passive voice at key moments to make it clear that there are no other actors in this drama other than Dao. In a one spectacular sentence, Munoz writes of Dao, “He was approached a few more times after that in order to gain his compliance to come off the aircraft, and each time he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent.” There is clearly a series of confrontations happening here, yet he is the only individual identified in the entire sentence. No one did the approaching and no one tried to gain his compliance; instead, the passenger just sat there on the plane, becoming more and more belligerent all by himself.
All of this builds towards the arrival of the Chicago Aviation Security officers. These figures are inevitably portrayed as accomplices, never direct initiators: United called them to “assist in removing the customer from the flight,” and they were only there “to help.” Even though one officer has already been placed on leave following the incident, none of them will at any time be held responsible, since their purpose here is only in “assisting” the bureaucracy.
In Munoz’s entire statement, this sentence stands out as the most chilling: “Our agents were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight. He repeatedly declined to leave.” The phrase, “left with no choice” is calculated and deliberate, and every rhetorical move of the preceding paragraphs is leading up to this moment. The bureaucratic state never acts of its own volition; it is always reactionary, and it always acts because the victim leaves it no choice. The mind, of course, reels with all of the choices available to United’s management in this instance: offering a higher compensation figure until someone agreed, transporting the crew to Louisville on another plane, acceding to Dao’s request that, as a doctor, he had patients to see the following morning and deserved priority, or simply waiting. But once this became a display of power and authority, they were left with no choice but violence.
The effect of United’s email is the onslaught of evasion to create an overall impression that the actions of the airline and its employees was out of their hands; that Dao, as the only autonomous and culpable figure in the drama, brought this on himself, and that the ensuing violence, while regrettable, was unavoidable. The more violence done to an individual, the more active agency he or she will be given by the bureaucratic voice, and the more removed and abstract the bureaucracy itself will become. When descriptions of violence are unavoidable, they will emphatically be in passive constructions: dissidents “were executed,” their bodies “were later found” and subsequently “were buried.”
An uninformed person could read this email and think that nothing United did was wrong—because it appears United did nothing at all.
Yesterday, Munoz released a second email, one which was far more direct and apologetic. Whether this will stem this news cycle remains to be seen, but either way, the point is not Munoz or United Airlines, but the way this simple email exemplifies a rhetoric that has infected our language at every level. If there is a singular, shining example of this emergent style of language, it’s to be found not in the language of the corporate world (even though corporations like United freely make use of it to their benefit), but in the tortured and reprehensible term “officer-involved shooting.” The term has crept into the lexicon only recently (around 1989, according to Google’s ngram viewer), and quickly became a hallmark of American policing. It exists for one reason only: to obfuscate the circumstances surrounding police killings of civilians, whether justified or not, and to efface any agency among law enforcement for the use of deadly force.
The term “officer-involved shooting” is a perfect example of bureaucratic speech: It invariably is paired with an active verb (“an officer-involved shooting occurred”) and yet the entire purpose of the construction is to imbue the scene with passivity. Police did not kill anyone; a shooting just occurred and it happened to involve officers. There is no actor in an officer-involved shooting, and not even any real actions. We don’t even technically know who was shot, only that an officer was somehow involved. An entire syntactical arrangement consisting of a subject (“police”), a verb (“shot”), and an object (“a civilian”) are transmuted into a noun (“shooting”) with a compound adjective (“officer-involved”) attached. It’s almost as if nothing took place at all.
Not only is it venal, you can tell a great deal simply by the syntax of sentences in which it’s employed: “Police chased the suspect into an alleyway; once cornered, the suspect appeared to draw a weapon, and at that point an officer-involved shooting took place.” Agency is granted to both the police and the victim through a series of dynamic verbs, creating a sense of action and suspense, right up until the moment of the shooting, when all agency mysteriously vanishes. The awkwardness of the syntactical construction, the strange wrenching of the sentence from the active voice to this bizarre passivity—all these are hallmarks of the bureaucratic voice, in that it will go to such lengths to avoid culpability that it will distort and pervert language itself.
We tend to think of the purpose of style guides as helping students to write clearer and more effectively. But increasingly, the far more important side of composition pedagogy is teaching students how to read. And teaching students how to spot and decipher the bureaucratic voice must become an essential skill.
Readers need to know, for example, that journalists who use phrases like “officer-involved shooting” in any context other than a direct quote from law enforcement are derelict. It is law enforcement’s prerogative to use spin and dissimulation to obtain favorable coverage; it is the media’s role to resist this. And yet, this is a role the media has almost wholeheartedly abdicated.
On Monday night, after a police officer killed a man in a Houston suburb, local station ABC 13 reported “Man Shot Dead in Officer-Involved Shooting in Northwest Houston.” Another station, CW39, more accurately reported the event with the headline, “HPD: Officer Kills Man After Responding to Noise Complaint in Acres Home,” though the first line of the story defaults back to police PR: “An officer-involved shooting has led to the death of an allegedly armed man in Northwest Houston.” The night before, police killed another man in Fremont, California. The ABC affiliate reported “1 Dead After Officer-Involved Shooting in Fremont, Cause Under Investigation,” the Fox affiliate headlined their story “One Dead in Fremont Officer Involved Shooting,” and the East Bay Times uncritically repeated the term in two separate pieces.
Compare this to the local NBC affiliate, KNTV, who reported the incident as: “Man Shot Dead by Fremont Police After Firing at Officers,” and only used the term “officer involved shooting” in quoting or paraphrasing law enforcement. In addition to not doing law enforcement’s PR work for free, the NBC story’s headline is clearer conveys more pertinent information, and is far more impactful. (In the ABC and Fox headlines, it’s even clear if the person killed was a cop or civilian.) Clarity such as this is often a dead giveaway as to the merits of the writing. Readers need to be trained to understand that, when it comes to bureaucratic sources, ugliness in prose is usually not entirely aesthetic, but usually is covering up something far more egregious than style.
The fact that I was able to find numerous examples of this egregious failure in the past few days alone indicates the degree to which American journalism is compromised by bureaucratic style. If the supposedly objective journalists we rely on to report facts are so hopelessly smitten by the language of violence, what hope do the rest of us have?
After all, the purpose of the bureaucratic voice is less to shape our thoughts or how we see the external world, but to reward incuriosity. The citizen who reads of an “officer-involved shooting” is invited to not think too hard about things and fill in whatever preconceived notions they may already hold about law enforcement, the use of violence, and the prevalence of criminality among racial minorities or those with mental health issues. United’s use of language in its email to employees does not itself shape our perception; rather it offers soothing pabulum to those whose minds are already made up, or who are predisposed to support bureaucracy and its use of force. Watching the cell phone videos of the assault has, for most people, the immediate effect of provoking outrage and awakening a desire for justice. The purpose of bureaucratic speech is to dull these responses. It suggests your outrage is not worth it, that it’s fine to go back to what you were doing, that it’s best to move along and mind your own business.
After all, bureaucracy whispers in your ear, the guy probably had it coming.