Passive verbs can do real damage — Jackson Katz

I’ve always hated passive verbs. But this week, a man I’ve never heard of named Jackson Katz gave me another reason to loathe them.

Did you notice or read about the social media hashtag #metoo this week? Apparently the campaign predates social media—activist Tarana Burke created it 10 years ago as a way of connecting with survivors of sexual abuse. But it acquired its # this week, revived by the furor around Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long abuse of his power and his penis.

Soon, it seemed like every woman with a social media account had shared her experiences of sexual harassment and/or abuse, with the easily searchable #metoo connecting them us—yes, #metoo—in a digital web.

And then something came across my Twitter feed—an excerpt from some writing by Jackson Katz.

Jackson Katz wrote this

I’ll type it out for those of you who can’t see the graphic:

“We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather tahn how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.

So you can see how the use of the passive voice has a political effect. [It] shifts the focus off of men and boys onto girls and women. Even the term ‘violence against women’ is problematic. It’s a passive construction. There’s no active agent in the sentence. It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at that term ‘violence against women,’ nobody is doing it to them. It just happens to them…Men aren’t even a part of it!”

Thank you, Jackson Katz

I’m a word person—been one for a long time. And I’m ashamed to say I never noticed this.

The language we use to describe abuse, domestic violence, rape, and sexual harassment completely erases men—who are in most cases the perpetrators of the above-mentioned actions.

I’ve written before about writer Josh Bernoff’s tip for rooting out passive verbs: If you can add the phrase “by zombies” and the sentence still makes sense, you’ve got a passive verb.

Let’s put one of Dr. Katz’s examples to the test:

 We talk about how many women were raped last year [by zombies.]

Nope. Zombies aren’t raping women—for the most part that would be men. And if I remember my middle school biology correctly, it’s 100% men doing the impregnating. Why do we continue to use language that absolves them of responsibility?

I always encourage you to pay attention to passive verbs. Today I especially encourage you to pay attention to passive verbs we use when we talk about women. Shine the spotlight where it belongs—on the people creating these various “crimes against women” and perhaps we can create a more just and equitable society. One word at a time.


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