On The Passive Voice and Nonexistent Agency

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Thomas J. Whitley is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University where he studies sexual slander and identity formation in early Christianity. You can read more of his work on his blog and you can follow him on Twitter for the daily minutiae of his life @thomaswhitley.

“C.I.A. Funds Found Their Way Into Al Qaeda Coffers” — so read the New York Times notification I received Saturday. The circumlocution was amusing. “Found their way” — or “ended up” as this NYT article puts it — is about as neutral a way of stating this as possible. The article is careful not to assign blame in its telling of how the money from the C.I.A. was used to pay off Al Qaeda in 2010.

whitelynytimesYet in the use of the passive voice to describe the situation, the article has removed the agency of any actors. The C.I.A. did not “send” or “give” the money to Al Qaeda, they simply regularly dropped off a bag of money at the royal palace in Kabul. It was then the Afghan government that raided a number of their cash sources for the money needed to pay off Al Qaeda for the release of an Afghan diplomat; that they used some money given to them by the C.I.A. is presented as a matter of happenstance. That the US should ultimately not be held responsible is alluded to by the quote with which the piece ends: “‘It’s cash,’ said a former Afghan security official. ‘Once it’s at the palace, they can’t do a thing about how it gets spent.’”

This situation provides a somewhat amusing example of how language can dissolve responsibility and agency. Yet we as scholars of religion are also guilty of the same thing. Indeed, I used this exact phrase — “found their way” — in a piece I recently wrote about how antiquities from Mosul got to Yale. It was, to be sure, a bit tongue in cheek and a way of avoiding the weeds of something that was ultimately a minor point in the article, but it is not explained and is not necessarily clear to the reader that I thought myself amusing when I wrote those words and thus the result is the same. Those involved in removing antiquities from Mosul and transporting them to Yale so that they could be in a museum “where they belong” are, in my telling, devoid of both responsibility and agency.

Most examples of this, however, are not intended in a tongue-in-cheek manner, but rather appear to be attempts at neutrality. For instance, in discussing the role that tradition plays for the Catholic church in this CNN article from last fall Daniel Burke writes that:


One would think that previous popes, cardinals, and bishops had nothing to do with this “accrual,” but rather that it is something that just kind of happened to the church. That is, in an effort to not pass judgment or assign responsibility for these teachings and traditions, in our desire to present ourselves as neutral and dispassionate observers of history, we wrest agency from the very actors we purport to study.