Corporations, ideologues and craven academics all use grammar and syntax to distort meaning

Civic leaders and large institutions often use language to color or misshape reality, thinking that through the use of words they can turn chicken feathers into chicken salad. Most of the time, their attempts are chicken shit, as the public has become wary of the various ways that politicians and corporations distort reality. Most people laugh derisively when a bank brags that 1.05% interest on a passbook account will help a family accumulate assets for retirement. And people get suspicious when corporations call a product recall a “quality withdrawal.”

But what if the organization or speaker deliver the lies not with words and phrases, but baked into the relationship between the parts of speech? Ellen Bresler Rockmore, a lecturer in rhetoric at Dartmouth presents a truly odious example of using syntax and grammar to tell a lie in an article titled “Texas History Lesson” in The New York Times.    Rockmore provides a complete analysis of the following paragraph in a United States history book that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) publishes for Texas schools (I refuse to write, “for the Texas school market”!):

Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves. However, severe treatment was very common. Whippings, brandings, and even worse torture were all part of American slavery.

As Rockmore ably details, when talking about what the text book is trying to present as the positive aspects of slavery, the sentences have “subjects” like masters who do good things and “objects” such as slaves to whom good stuff happens. Forget the fact that most of this good stuff never occurred since life was brutish for most slaves most of the time. The writers handle the “brutish” aspects in the second part of the paragraph, entirely without attribution. When it comes to whippings, brandings and torture, which historians know occurred far more frequently than kind treatment, we never learn who did it and to whom it was done. By draining both the actor (subject) and the acted upon (object) from these sentences, the writers make the actions abstract, almost dehumanized, which in this sense, means devoid of human activity or intervention. Of course we know which human beings did commit torture, whippings, brandings and other atrocities—it was the slave owners.

Later in her very learned article, Rockmore gives an example of the most common means by which writers use syntax and grammar to deform the truth: the passive construction.  Her example, “Families were often broken apart when a family member was sold to another owner” contains two passives: “were broken apart” and “was sold.” If we replaced these parts of speech which active versions of the verbs, the sentence might read, “Slave owners often broke apart families by selling a family member to another slave owner.” Removing the passive removes attribution and makes it seem as if the action of breaking apart and selling are abstract and perhaps even natural processes. FYI, conservative economists currently use the same approach when they blame lower wages on the fact that “jobs in unionized older industries have been replaced by jobs in newer non-unionized industries.”

Corporations will often use these inherently squeamish forms of speech even when they are not talking about anything controversial. Lawyers and accountants pretty much always write in the passive voice, as a means not to attribute cause or action, and that predilection infected marketing departments and the rest of corporate America decades ago.

I have made an excellent living for more than 25 years advising clients on crisis communications issues, and in every case part of my advice has been to turn some sentences written in the passive construction into active voices:  My staff routinely turns sentences such as “The fight was broken up in five minutes” and “A dozen people will be laid off” into the more direct, “Security broke up the fight quickly with no one injured” and “We will lay off a dozen employees.”  My theory is that by accepting blame, the company will establish its credibility in fixing the problem and assuring the public that everything is back to normal. By speaking directly, the company comes off as open and honest, instead of projecting the deviousness and concealment of the passive voice. Between crises and technocrats who want the public to understand them (instead of “want to be understood”), we do a pretty good business merely turning passive constructions into active ones.

When a corporation speaks in the passive voice and in other ways use syntax and grammar to distort meaning, they do it almost always for one of three reasons:

  1. Bad writers
  2. A desire to make something seem more abstract or scientifically based
  3. To hide something bad.

In the case of the HMH writers of the Texas American history book, we know they are good writers from the many finely-wrought sentences we see in the text book. Why then, do they resort to these devious rhetorical devices when talking about slavery?

We know the answer: They are cravenly putting money ahead of integrity by giving into the desire of Texas school boards to whitewash slavery.

But why do the Texas school boards want to whitewash slavery? None of the people on the school boards nor any of their parents or grandparents owned slaves. Slavery ended in 1865 (although a good case can be made that the denial of civil and economic rights to blacks after the brief Reconstruction era continued the spirit of slavery).

You don’t see positive references to Hitler or Nazism in the German history textbooks. The Germans as a nation and a civil society accept the horrifying fact that their ancestors participated in or condoned one of the worst atrocities in recorded history. Virtually every town of any size in Germany has a holocaust or a Jewish museum that reminds Germans of this indelibly monstrous stain on German culture and history. Instead of trying to hide the awful facts, Germans own up to their past and make sure everyone knows that what they did was unforgiveable. It’s a good start for ensuring no reoccurrence of the Nazi era.

What would be so wrong with Texas history books explicitly admitting that slavery was an inhumane foundation for an economy and society? Instead of trying to play down the worst excesses of slavery, Texans, other southerners and the United States in general should admit how horrible slavery was. The attitude of the text books should be “Yes we did bad stuff, and we learned not to do it again.” Denying the full horror of slavery only serves to justify it.

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