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News Media, the Passive Voice, and the Problem with Saying They 'Were Radicalized'

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | December 9, 2015 |


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Every news article about the San Bernadino killings for the last week has been focused on exactly one thing: when, where, and how were the shooters “radicalized.” Here’s a sampling of headlines and quotes:

“FBI director: Calif. killers radicalized before meeting”

“San Bernardino shooters radicalized ‘for some time’”

“investigators believe Tashfeen Malik, Farook’s wife and the other shooter who opened fire Wednesday, was radicalized at least two years ago”

“CA couple radicalized ‘for quite some time’”

“Federal investigators now say the attackers in San Bernardino were radicalized sooner than previously thought”

Do you happen to recall back in junior high or high school english classes, the way that the teacher bled red ink all over your papers because you used the passive voice over and over again? Use the active voice. Don’t waffle about: get right to the jugular of the matter and just say who did what instead of whom had what done to them.

This isn’t just a grammatical complaint, or even a stylistic complaint, it’s one that derives from the heart of our coverage of this matter. By repeatedly using the passive voice to say that they were radicalized, without ever identifying an object, we are implicitly passing off all responsibility.

These murderers had agency. They bought guns and killed people. They are responsible for their actions. They didn’t just go online one day, click on the wrong popup and “get radicalized.” That’s not to say that hate speech and literature don’t influence people, but that the people themselves are still responsible. They choose to seek it out. They choose to read it. They choose to listen to it. They choose to kill.

It’s an easy way out for us because it allows us to completely dismiss any factors that led to that decision, from either side of the political spectrum. Because if it’s just an external factor that magically causes things to happen, if there’s just some evil cancer that radicalizes people, then we don’t have to confront any of the other factors that lead to people making these decisions. Because we’ve already found the real cause and it has nothing to do with anything we have control over, it’s just a symptom of those people.

And it certainly isn’t simply this specific case, though it is more crystallized and apparent here. It’s always easier to find an external cause, because then we don’t have to change. We don’t have to accept responsibility.

But agency is a funny thing. Because if we’re not responsible for our atrocities, neither do we get credit for our heroisms.


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