Monday, February 13, 2017

Passive Voice: A Critique of the University Collaborative Letter

Before you delve into this story, to give you context, Azusa Pacific University, Life Pacific College, and Point Loma Nazarene University (my alma mater and employer) wrote a collaborative letter in response to the Trump Administration's immigration ban.

You can view the letter here.

I highly suggest reading it before reading my story.

So, away we go...
⥥  ⥥  ⥥

Passive Voice: A Critique of the Collaborative University Letter
By Randy Meza*

*The views described in this story represent my views and not the views of my employer. As you’ll find out, that’s the point.


Entrenched deep within a cubicle maze, the draft sporting the names of Azusa Pacific, Life Pacific, and Point Loma Nazarene fell onto the desk of an intern. Her job was to clean it up, to make the lines sing.

"We value our place in the plurality of educational offerings in the United States..."

The usage of “plurality” warranted a nod from the intern. The word conveys open-mindedness. However, a quick Google search concerns the intern. It provides ammo for a snarky student’s op-ed: old articles about PLNU disinviting Mexico’s former president over his stance on drug legalization. That’s history though. People have short attention spans.

"Against the backdrop of these guiding principles, the Executive Order signed last Friday temporarily suspending immigration from certain foreign nations and refugee resettlement in the United States causes concern as it could be read to selectively treat people in a manner that overlooks that God-given dignity."

Her pen hovered above the copy but there was no clear directive, no place to begin in sharpening this sentence. Something didn't sit well with the intern. It may have been the five coffees she drank and the donut-induced caloric surplus, or maybe, it was the tone of the pesky conditional mood (aka helping verbs.)

The intern had felt compelled by the Bible's call for civil cooperation with the government in the beginning of the third paragraph, but the "could be read" toward the end of the sentence undermined the emotional stirring. “Could” implies the possibility of “could not.”

She imagined some of the great transformative Biblical stories with helping verbs inserted into the narrative. They didn’t have the same effect:

Peter, satisfied with the potential he “could” walk on water, remained in the boat...Bartimaeus, content in his helplessness, sat on the edges of the crowd for he “could” sift through them, but his salvation “could” come to him...Jesus, foregoing the cross--for there “could” be another method for redemption--abdicates his role as savior.

The alternative stories disgusted the intern. She understood why Nietzsche appraised the implementations of Christianity as submissive and a stupefying narcotic.

"However, we ask you to consider the pain that these restrictions cause for many innocent people as you undertake the difficult challenge of protecting national security.'

While reading the collaborative letter, the chime for the notification of a new email broke the intern’s concentration. One of her coworkers has been sending out quotes daily from prominent Black intellectuals, artists, and civil rights activists (in honor of Black History Month) to her entire office.

The emails have grown increasingly poignant and challenging. First, Harriet Tubman’s "Every great dream begins with a dreamer…” to yesterday's email of Angela Davis's "I'm no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I'm changing the things I cannot accept." Many coworkers groaned at the emails, deeming them spam, too political, or clutter for their inboxes.

Today, the biting words of Martin Luther King, Jr. captivated the intern’s attention:

"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice [...] Lukewarm acceptance is more bewildering than outright rejection."

The glare overexposure from the computer monitor strained the intern’s retinas. She could not believe that her schooling only covered the "I Have a Dream" speech.

Returning to the copy before her, she knew changes had to be made. "We ask you to consider..." did not convey the outright rejection needed. The letter would be sent to all faculty, staff, and students after all. So, a tempered message of concern wasn't the affirmation of justice needed -- especially for the students who face the looming injustice of legalized discrimination. The intern wished for this letter to provide shade for the fearful to find comfort in. Right now, it was nothing but a lukewarm rejection, which might as well be a lukewarm acceptance.

The employees needed to be addressed too. The intern knew they play an important role, especially in the event of the worst-case scenario: the government mandating administrative offices surrendering the information of “outsiders.”

If there were a resistance, a revolution, it would have to be a bureaucratic one -- courageous acts including the undermining of any unreasonable demand through willing incompetence or sending data to undeliverable addresses. Who else can defend the information of the vulnerable but the invisible bureaucrat? The ones actually handling the envelopes containing the impure orders.

Despite her opposition to the will of the university presidents, the intern did not blame them for taking such a wishy-washy stance. Their concerns are of profit and of order. Their jobs exist solely to maintain their schools’ operations. They have to answer to the demands of a board of trustees. Thus, a great act of resistance is not within their inventory of freedom.

The intern knew the students could not rely upon this letter, in its current weak-willed state, as something to look up to. Thus, she decided to rebel. For she, an individual, is free and unbound by obligations to fallible, inflexible institutions.

She removed all instances of helping verbs -- now the letter reads, "the executive order is a method to selectively treat people in a manner that overlooks that God-given dignity."

She made the letter’s demands clear, "Remove the ban before you cause the pain of many innocent people under this guise of national security."

For the moderate-toned helping verb makes any demand for justice the weak, balmy handshake to the will of an authoritarian.

Once her copy reached her PR firm’s chief communication officer’s hands, he threw it away. He cited it as being too idealistic, impractical, and threatens the notion, “why can’t everyone get along?”

Nevertheless, she persevered against the calls of silence. She snuck the polemic copy into the layout editor’s final draft and personally sent the copy to the printers.

Thanks to her upstanding editing, the letter was now fit for consumption.