Using the ‘bureaucratic voice’ to evade responsibility

We are by now drearily familiar with the non-apology apology, where instead of coming right out and saying that one is sorry for an error or for doing something wrong, we get a statement along the lines of “I am sorry if you were offended”, which seems to imply that one is sorry for the effect that one caused on some people (and which subtly implies that it is they were wrong for their silly reaction), rather than acknowledging that what one said or did was wrong.

But there is another method that authorities use to evade accepting full responsibility. Thanks to reader Chris, I became aware of this article by Colin Dickey following the fiasco in which United Airlines forcibly removed a passenger David Dao off a plane, in the process leaving him bloodied, dazed, and confused. He says that the statements put out by United CEO Oscar Munoz illustrated the way that bureaucratic style is used to make culprits disappears into thin air.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

We seem to be deluged these days by cases of police shooting unarmed people, usually people of color. Dickey goes on to describe instances in which reports of such shootings are also presented using the bureaucratic voice that shifts blame away from the agents of the actions and he says that all too often, reporters are willing to go along with this.

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.

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.

Once it has been pointed out, it is easy to see the repeated use of this kind of distancing language by authorities whenever they do something wrong.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    [ahem!] I.e., distancing language was used. Though somewhat ameliorated by “by authorities”, the closing sentence here echoes the problem described.

    My personal preference for minimizing this sort of thing (the passive voice in general) calls for using E-prime as much as possible. Namely: drop all forms of “to be”, which forces you to use more active verbs (and usually creates more vivid and accurate statements).

  2. Matthew Herron says

    Notpologies have become so routine that I was surprised when Representative-elect Greg Gianforte actually apologized for body-slamming Ben Jacobs:

    Last night I made a mistake and I took an action that I can’t take back and I’m not proud of what happened. I should not have responded in the way that I did and for that I’m sorry.

    Of course, the apology came only after the election and after his initial victim-blaming lies were refuted by Fox News reporters. Still, it was a clear and direct apology, not ‘I’m sorry people were upset by this’ or similar empty nonsense.

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