Friday, March 7, 2014

Who's the secret agent?

       One of the elementary schools in our neighborhood has, as its "mascot" the cougar.  And so, found throughout the school is the imperative "ROAR"!  As you can see from the image above, ROAR stands for:  Respect. Own it. Attitude. Responsibility.  And each morning, in conjunction with the Pledge of Allegiance, the kids recite the school's pledge.  I think it's a great practice and I hope that the kids actually incorporate what those words mean (both the Pledge of Allegiance and ROAR!).  As a parent (and remembering back to when I was an elementary school-aged kid), I know how difficult it can be to have a child "own up" to what he/she did.  "Something happened, Dad!  And it got broken!"  Right, the toy was just laying on the floor and "something magically happened", and it became broken.  "Owning it" suggests that a different response might be:  "I'm sorry.  I was using the toy to try to break this rock, and I broke the toy instead."
      The diversion of responsibility is something we "learn" at a very early age; it's VERY difficult to "own it" when we we've done something wrong.  And we translate that attitude into our language and our writing.  As I grade papers in my "Pets, Partners or Pot-Roast" class, I often find sentences written in the passive voice.  And the passive voice hides agency.  That is, sentences in the passive obscure who it was that performed the action.  Numerous examples abound!  "Laboratory animals are confined to incredibly mall cages."  Well, confined by whom?  The researchers or lab technicians are hidden from the action; no responsibility!  Or, in a different vein "We are given responsibility to care for animals."  We are?  By whom?
      I don't mean to be hyper-critical of the authors of these papers.  They only mirror what they find in newspapers, press-releases and political statements.  And most of them have been taught to avoid using the first-person in their writing.  I can understand that.  But, if we constantly hide agency by using the passive voice, we can find ourselves absolving ourselves of any responsibility in contributing to the horrible treatment of others.  For example, if consumers didn't demand certain products, animals might not be subject to testing.  So, if we were to trace the line of responsibility back, the animals' suffering might ultimately be our responsibility!  We can't have that! " Put it in the passive!"  Or, if we blithely say "We are given responsibility for . . ." without addressing who/what it was that gave us that responsibility, we may conveniently avoid addressing issues of (relatively) cosmic significance.
       This phenomenon, or habit, is nothing new!  Recently I read a passage from the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel.  Addressing the people -- chiding them, actually -- he asked: "Why do you keep repeating this proverb in the land of Israel: The parents have eaten unripe grapes; and the children’s teeth are set on edge?" (Ez 18.2)  The prophet's question was "Why do you keep diverting attention from your own responsibility, your own fault?  There is no passive voice here; there is no secret agency.  Own it!"
      Christians, right now, are beginning the season of Lent, in which they spend a number of weeks taking stock of their lives, their responsibility.  They are charged, in many ways, to leave the passive voice behind, and to accept the fact that they are fallible, prone to error. In short, that they are not God.  Just about every religious tradition has a similar time of introspection, encouraging their members to think carefully about their place in the larger scheme of things, their responsibility for others and the world.
      I wonder if we were to "own it" on a regular basis, from our writing habits to our relationships with others, if that honesty might make for a better, more just, world?


Chaplain Gary

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