But as he turned to characterize the Great Recession, Obama’s speech pattern changed: He shifted to a sentence structure that excludes human actors from the subject position. “The deck is stacked” against the working class, Obama said. Why? Because “taxes were slashed,” he said, and “growth has flowed to a fortunate few.” His language gave no indication of who brought about these disparities.
Instead, his words suggested abstract ideas were capable of independent action. “Because of upward mobility,” Obama said, “the guy on the factory floor could picture his kid running the company.” And, he went on, “jobs automated or headed offshore.” In a nearly hourlong speech, only rarely did we get any glimpse of who-did-what-to-whom: “Businesses lobbied Washington to weaken unions and the value of the minimum wage.”
It’s no surprise that Obama’s not naming names—throughout the economic collapse and its aftermath, that kind of avoidance has been commonplace among politicians. What makes this speech stand out is that even as it attempts to put forth deliberate remedies to inequality, its language undermines the notion that we are confronting a problem humans made, not a hurricane or nasty flu, and suggests that the problem is out of human hands. It’s a perfect example of why English teachers admonish us to avoid passive constructions.
Research has shown that the grammar we use to describe events influences how audiences perceive them: In particular, the choice of an active or passive voice can make people change their assessments of blame. Using the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” from the Super Bowl Halftime Show in 2004, social psychologists Caitlin Fausey and Lera Boroditsky found that respondents who read that Justin Timberlake “tore” Janet Jackson’s clothing attributed blame and sought to levy 53 percent more in fines than those who read that “the bodice tore.” This was true even though all the participants first watched a video of what happened.
If we can so easily alter perceptions of an event through language, it’s all the more critical how we characterize an abstract, ongoing problem like inequality. Consider some current competing accounts for what has caused inequality to soar: Some see wage stagnation at fault, others contend that technological innovation eliminates jobs, and still others argue that it’s a result of women entering the workforce. The inequality origin story shapes what you think ought to happen next.
This is the danger when we suggest that no one is to blame. It’s one thing to say “inequality has increased.” It’s another to do the politically difficult work of naming a culprit. It’s one thing to say children are born into poverty; it’s another to acknowledge that voters have supported specific education, health, tax, and wage policies that keep them there.
Unless we describe problems as having been made by people, it’s reasonable to conclude they cannot be fixed by people. Obama effectively described some of the myths preventing serious attention to inequality. His own language, however, suggests an unwillingness to take on an even more pernicious one: the notion that inequality is a plague that befell us rather than the result of people writing the rules. Until we can talk about who did what to get us here, in ways that extend to our very sentence structure, it will be hard to put forth a compelling case that we can change course.