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Language and our tendency to self-absolve

<h6>Photo Courtesy of the Matador Network</h6>
Photo Courtesy of the Matador Network

Last week, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg participated for the first time in a Democratic Party debate. When asked about his racist policing policies, he disingenuously reflected that the way in which stop-and-frisk “turned out” was non-ideal.

Yet, as Elizabeth Warren pointed out to his face, this evasion is somewhat of a throw-away line.  Bloomberg’s use of the passive voice proved to be as ineffective as it was ill-motivated. But Bloomberg’s rhetoric on the debate stage is mirrored in the lives of people here at Princeton and in the wider world in general.


Words are useful tools. As a writer, I see this simultaneously as a burden and a relief. When we try to explain and justify things to ourselves and others, we use words; they illuminate our most intimate feelings. Yet, they also take away part of what they afford; they provide euphemistic cushioning that saves us from the weight of harsh truths. For example, we tend to self-absolve when we use phrases such as, “I’m sorry you felt that way.” Like Bloomberg, we can shroud our behaviors and evade our responsibilities with cheap tricks of rhetoric.

But the passive voice — Bloomberg’s verbal technique of choice — is not always illegitimately deployed. It is at least descriptively accurate. No one should deny, after all, that how stop-and-frisk “turned out” was quite horrific. The objection is not that Bloomberg is incorrect, but that his statement reduces the point to triviality, absolving him of blame for something that just happened to occur during the period of his mayoral tenure. However, Bloomberg’s racist policing is situated in a national context of similar transgressions. This context does not negate Bloomberg’s abuse of language — committed with the intent of masking a more extreme abuse of a few years ago — but it ought to be considered.

Fortunately, our interpersonal slights tend not to rise to the level of a Bloomberg. Clearing such a low bar, though, does not negate the point. Given the tension in the anonymous posts of Princeton students, there is consistently much to be addressed. Hardly anyone alive has as much cause for remorse as the CEO of a well-oiled stop-and-frisk machine. We have less to regret, but if Bloomberg’s performance on a televised stage is any clue, we are quite a bit better at using language to fool people, most particularly ourselves.

Sometimes, euphemism is necessary, safeguarding us from reality until we are prepared to confront it. The passive voice represents a truth in itself: even when we screw up, there is often an external context that explains our behavior. But limiting ourselves to this revelation that we are not the only agents in reality does not mean that we have no hand in it.

To those whom we’ve wronged, the use of the passive voice seems like nonsense; we must take care not to sell our own selves short, for the sake of accountability and self-worth alike. There are points at which the way we discuss destructive behavior, whether of ourselves or others, becomes the abuse — as opposed to the use — of the language that should represent a tool for validation and resolution.

Often, I view myself first and foremost as someone who engages in politics. It may seem that I’ve attempted to fuse personal musings with social analysis, and this is the case to an extent. But my analogy is not flawless. Social discord stems from this context, which cannot be improved through our use of language alone, and we should not hold ourselves personally responsible for this tension.


But as we seek political conclusions, we can and should live better socially. Like Antonio Gramsci before me, I have a pessimism of the intellect and an optimism of the will; in other words, political awareness tells me there is no hope for one such as Bloomberg, while social experience inspires me to favor constructive interactions on campus and beyond.

These will be necessary for the intellect to be brought into agreement with the will.

Braden Flax is a junior from Merrick, N.Y. He can be reached at

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