Brian Williams's Passive Voice

As reported here by Clarice Feldman, Brian Williams is in trouble.  Over the years, Williams has claimed that an essentially pedestrian frontline assignment during the Second Iraq War in truth found him to be a veritable Hillary, at the center of action with helicopters being blown out the sky around him.  This turns out to be a fabrication, in which several separate events were blended together with Williams at the focus.

The way in which Williams attempted to excuse himself deserves a little extra attention.  According to Williams, “I would not have chosen to make this mistake… I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”

What Williams is doing here, of course, is employing the passive voice to distance himself from the action.  Instead of possessing actual agency and taking some measure of responsibility for the situation he’s involved in, Williams is  claiming to be merely an onlooker, a Cartesian point-of-view consciousness looking on helplessly while events unfold around him.  This style of usage is quite commonplace among the postmodern, particularly as involves criminals and hustlers, as in the classic case of the lowlife murderer recounted by Theodore Dalrymple: “…then the knife went in.”

We’ve had more than our fill of this since 2008.  Examples from Obama, Pelosi, and Hillary are myriad and will not take up space here.

But a closer look at Williams’s words reveals something a little more complex – a second-order passive voice that distances the speaker even farther from responsibility.  Williams is claiming not only that events happened by themselves, but that the very thoughts involved were alien and inexplicable: “I would not have chosen to make this mistake.”

Did Brian Williams choose to make up such a story?  Actually decide to distort the facts to support an untruth?  Not Brian Williams.  No – it had to be somebody else.  Some unknown and untraceable force put that idea in his head.  Somebody made him do that.  Maybe a demonic entity out of a Stephen King novel.  Maybe those sneaky telepaths in Scanners.  But somebody else made him want to pull that trick.  Not Brian Williams.  No way!

It follows from this that the “conflating” of the two stories that “screwed up his mind” – of the downed helicopter an hour ahead and the perfectly safe Chinook in which Brian Williams was riding – was somebody else’s nefarious work as well.  If Williams couldn’t even decide to fake something, well, then, he certainly wouldn’t make up the story itself, now would he?  Nope – it’s them scanners again.

Only a media figure could come up with this.  It requires serious mastery of manipulating facts and rhetoric that comes only with years of experience.  But now that Williams has introduced the multi-level passive mood, I predict a bright future for it.  We’ll be hearing this kind of thing a lot over the next couple of years.

As reported here by Clarice Feldman, Brian Williams is in trouble.  Over the years, Williams has claimed that an essentially pedestrian frontline assignment during the Second Iraq War in truth found him to be a veritable Hillary, at the center of action with helicopters being blown out the sky around him.  This turns out to be a fabrication, in which several separate events were blended together with Williams at the focus.

The way in which Williams attempted to excuse himself deserves a little extra attention.  According to Williams, “I would not have chosen to make this mistake… I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”

What Williams is doing here, of course, is employing the passive voice to distance himself from the action.  Instead of possessing actual agency and taking some measure of responsibility for the situation he’s involved in, Williams is  claiming to be merely an onlooker, a Cartesian point-of-view consciousness looking on helplessly while events unfold around him.  This style of usage is quite commonplace among the postmodern, particularly as involves criminals and hustlers, as in the classic case of the lowlife murderer recounted by Theodore Dalrymple: “…then the knife went in.”

We’ve had more than our fill of this since 2008.  Examples from Obama, Pelosi, and Hillary are myriad and will not take up space here.

But a closer look at Williams’s words reveals something a little more complex – a second-order passive voice that distances the speaker even farther from responsibility.  Williams is claiming not only that events happened by themselves, but that the very thoughts involved were alien and inexplicable: “I would not have chosen to make this mistake.”

Did Brian Williams choose to make up such a story?  Actually decide to distort the facts to support an untruth?  Not Brian Williams.  No – it had to be somebody else.  Some unknown and untraceable force put that idea in his head.  Somebody made him do that.  Maybe a demonic entity out of a Stephen King novel.  Maybe those sneaky telepaths in Scanners.  But somebody else made him want to pull that trick.  Not Brian Williams.  No way!

It follows from this that the “conflating” of the two stories that “screwed up his mind” – of the downed helicopter an hour ahead and the perfectly safe Chinook in which Brian Williams was riding – was somebody else’s nefarious work as well.  If Williams couldn’t even decide to fake something, well, then, he certainly wouldn’t make up the story itself, now would he?  Nope – it’s them scanners again.

Only a media figure could come up with this.  It requires serious mastery of manipulating facts and rhetoric that comes only with years of experience.  But now that Williams has introduced the multi-level passive mood, I predict a bright future for it.  We’ll be hearing this kind of thing a lot over the next couple of years.