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The passive aggressive voice of Harvey Weinstein’s Denial

October 16, 2017

has a post up today entitled, “The Strange Language of Harvey Weinstein’s Denial,” in which the linguist does a great job of giving readers his explanation of the “very peculiar flavor to the grammar of the statement released by Harvey Weinstein (via the spokeswoman Sallie Hofmeister).” He also includes a link to a much earlier post of his (“Fear and Loathing of the English Passive”) to try to get us past the tired notion that “the passive voice” must be responsible for “awkwardly evasive prose of this kind.”

What Pullum does not do is to help us consider how the passive voice is frequently a socially constructed way for our English speaking societies to perpetuate systemic sexism, to enable men to violate women sexually. He gives us, for example, no reference to the twitter campaign #nametheagent. Nor does he regard the problems of the social uses of the passive voice that male feminist Jackson Katz does regard.

Katz regards many English speakers’ uses of the passive voice to be a way of protecting the men who rape women. He says (with my emphases in bold font):

We [English speakers and writers] use the passive voice all over the place in discussions about violence, and gender violence in particular. So we talk about, for example, how many women in Colorado Springs were raped, or at colleges in Colorado or something, were raped last year. Not how many men raped women. Or we’ll say things like, how many girls in a Colorado Springs school district were harassed or abused last year, not how many boys harassed or abused girls. …

In each case, the use of the passive voice has a political effect and the political effect is to shift focus off of boys and onto girls. Even the term ‘violence against women’ is a problematic term — there’s no active agent in the sentence. It’s just something that happens to women, like the weather.

And he writes (again with my emphases):

Men’s role in rape is characteristically hidden in mainstream journalism through a variety of linguistic conventions. One of the more significant of these is when [English language] writers and speakers use the passive voice – consciously or not — to talk about incidents of sexual violence (e.g. “200,000 women have been raped since the conflict began.”). In addition, men’s central responsibility for the rape pandemic escapes critical examination whenever writers and speakers use gender-neutral terminology to talk about perpetrators, who are overwhelmingly men. An August 12 New York Times article reporting on Secretary Clinton’s trip provides a good case study of these phenomena.

The article appeared beneath the fold on page A8, in the International section. It was headlined “Clinton Presents Plan to Fight Sexual Violence in Congo,” by Jeffery Gettleman. The passive voice began in the first paragraph: “…Secretary Clinton…met a Congolese woman who had been gang-raped while she was eight months pregnant.” Passive sentence structures that hid male perpetration appeared in subsequent paragraphs: “…hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in the past decade.” “…countless women, and recently many men, have been raped.” “Hundreds of villagers have been massacred.” “The aid worker told Mrs. Clinton that an 8-year-old boy who had strayed out of the camp was raped the other day.”

This brief catalogue of passive sentences is not an attempt to single out the New York Times reporter for criticism. He was merely a vehicle for the transmission of the dominant ideology, which routinely obfuscates men’s culpability for rape through both conscious and unconscious omissions. Victims themselves often use passive voice. Gettleman quoted one woman, Mrs. Mapendo, who said “Our life is very bad. We get raped when we go out and look for food. “Another woman said “Children are killed, women are raped and the world closes its eyes.”

What I hope we might do is to consider that is Harvey Weinstein’s denial in English is, unfortunately, not strange at all. It is unmarked sexist and unmarked masculinist and unmarked rapist language. It is not strange. It is the sort of language that those using #nametheagent and those like Jackson Katz call to our attention.

So let’s call our attention back to Sallie Hofmeister’s use of the passive voice in English to speak on behalf of Harvey Weinstein:

Any allegations of nonconsensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein.

As Pullum notes, this is a rather strange use of the passive voice. But what is hardly strange at all, and Pullum could have pointed to this fact too, is English speakers’ and writers’ use of the passive construct in the context of talking about men having raped women.

“Women were raped (by Mr. Weinstein)” is what is alleged (and what is further denied by Mr. Weinstein).

So do you see what I just did? That’s right, I tried to show the weaselly implications in the construction of Ms. Hofmeister’s use of the passive on Mr. Weinstein’s behalf.

It is normal, and unmarked, to write and to say things like “women are raped.” Period. To leave it there and not to name Mr. Weinstein as the subject of the sentence, to merely imply that a someone, not named, was the rapist is not strange. Not strange at all.

And for Ms. Hofmeister to say, in English, this phrase — “any allegations of nonconsensual sex” — is not strange at all either. What her construct implies is a passive voice. And she uses this passive implication to implicate those making allegations. The language implicates those “alleging” as abusers of Mr. Weinstein. This turns the tables on them. They are taking away Mr. Weinstein’s reputation. They are threatening to rob him of his chance to go to rehab, to rehabilitate himself, to gain for himself a “second chance.”

“Women were raped.”

“Mr. Weinstein was accused, was made the poor victim (of mere allegations by alledgers).”

We listeners and readers, speakers and writers, of the English passive voice for what happens to women (“like the weather”) do not yet find it strange at all to protect the perpetrators of rape. Ms. Hofmeister seems to hope, on Mr. Weinstein’s behalf, that we will hear and read her English as implying that the women bringing the allegations are in that unmarked position of power, as we too normally allow rapists to be. We are used to the passive voice in the context of women being raped (by men); we find it commonplace to let this passive voice hide rapists and their aggression. We allow hardly stop to think about this passive aggressiveness and our complicity in it through our not strange language.

It would be stranger, perhaps, for Mr. Hofmeister to assert this this way:

Eva Green, Florence Darel, Melissa Sagemiller, Juls Bindi, Katherine Kendall, Angie Everhart, Minka Kelly, Tara Subkoff, Sarah Ann Masse, Claire Forlani, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Barth, Lea Seydoux, Cara Delevingne, Rose McGowan, Heather Graham, Angelina Jolie, Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, Asia Argento, Louisette Geiss, Rosanna Arquette, Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, Mira Sorvino, Emma De Caunes, Judith Godreche, Elizabeth Karlsen, Lauren Sivan, Jessica Hynes, Romola Garai, and Lysette Anthony actively, publicly, courageously, and unequivocally state that Harvey Weinstein without the consent of any of them sexually assaulted them individually, and now I Sallie Hofmeister say that he denies that he did that.

When will feminist activism, the bringing of rapists to justice, finally not be strange?

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