We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we move from the passive voice to the active voice–that is, until we have stopped saying “It got lost,” and say, “I lost it.” – Sydney J. Harris
Though there are occasions on which the passive voice is useful and appropriate, that is not true most of the time. And when the topic is anything political, it’s almost never correct because it’s nothing more than a means of denying responsibility, or of shifting the apparent focus of the conversation. Though I’m not going to go out of my way to use a bunch of passive-voice constructions to prove a point, I will indicate proper natural uses in today’s text with an asterisk.
For those who don’t remember their grammar that well, passive voice is the sentence form in which the subject is acted upon rather than acting; it often produces weak and awkward sentences, and is thus best avoided by those who aren’t good at such things. For example:
Active voice: I wrote this sentence.
Passive voice: This sentence was written by me.
Rather cumbersome, isn’t it? As I said above, there are times when the construction is useful; if Rasputin is the subject of a paragraph, it’s perfectly reasonable and proper to include the sentence, “He was killed by a group of boyars who felt that his influence over the Czarina threatened all of Russia.” Changing the subject from “Rasputin” to “boyars” would not only be jarring, it might even make the point more confusing. The passive voice is also quite useful when the entity which actually initiated an action is unknown: “The package was picked on Tuesday,” or “The cave-paintings were made about 16,000 years ago,” or “A flaming bag of human feces was left on the steps of the police station.” This is why the form is often used by those who wish to avoid responsibility for something*; it can make it sound as though the culprit is unknown when in fact there is little doubt of his identity. The classic political example is “Mistakes were made,” which is bureaucratese for “I made a mistake” or “My office staff made a mistake” or the like. Police reports and press releases are riddled with such constructions, especially when the cops murder someone; in the cartoon world they inhabit, guns and bullets appear to act on their own without any identifiable human agency.
Given this ability of the passive voice to shift the perception of agency, you can be sure it is heavily employed in “trafficking” propaganda*. Over and over we’re told that “girls are sold for sex”, implying that they have no active role and that the legal fiction of a minor’s inability to give consent describes an actual, factual condition of passivity. Saying that a whore “is trafficked” automatically implies the existence of a “trafficker”, some person who “did this to her” after she has been stripped of agency* through the magic of the passive voice. The neofeminist term for a whore, “prostituted woman”, embodies this concept in its very form; it’s impossible to use it without essentially stating that all sex workers are victims of some imaginary “prostitutor”. Its PC alternative, “women in prostitution”, is nearly as bad, though in this case the agency seems to be shifted to an amorphous entity called “prostitution”.
But of all passive constructions, one of the subtlest and most pervasive is the word “problematic”, which is used by prohibitionists* who want to pretend that their ban-campaigns are not only based in reality, but upon some characteristic of the thing to be banned rather than some characteristic of theirs. When a neofeminist says “porn is problematic”, she pretends that there is some issue with porn which generates problems (compare “the disease is contagious” or “this mineral is radioactive”), when the truth is that the problem resides entirely in the heads of those like her. When she says something is “problematic”, what she actually means is “I have a problem with it,” but by use of the passive voice she refocuses attention from where it belongs – her busybody psyche – to the thing she hates. This makes it seem (as in the case of the cop’s gun) that the fault lies in a thing rather than a person, and thereby changes the entire conversation.