"Mistakes were made." That's what our Fearless Leader has to say about the U.S. attorney mess. Let's set aside the implications of the Attorney General of the United States firing U.S. attorneys because they were insufficiently politically pure and zealous. That's too obvious to bother with.
The point here is the appalling obfuscation caused by - the passive voice. Anyone who has stayed awake in English class knows the difference between the passive and the active voice, but for those of you who slept through it, here are examples:
Active: I hit the ball.
Passive: The ball was hit by me.
A little thought will tell you that you can't write a sentence in the active voice without making it crystal clear who is doing what to whom. I hit the ball.
When you write in the passive voice, though, you can obliterate responsibility entirely, merely by leaving off those last two words, "by me". The ball was hit. Who hit the ball? We don't know. A man was killed. Who killed him? We don't know, unlike when Bob Marley sings, "I shot the sherriff."
This is why politicians adore the passive voice. It's very rare that you'll find one speaking - and certainly not writing - in the active voice. You'll know when you do find one because ... they will be more interesting to listen to. Writing or speaking in the active voice, you tell a story. Writing in the passive voice, you produce a government report, or a political speech, in which no one is responsible for anything. This is why you'll never see Alberto Gonzalez stand up on his hind legs in front of cameras and say, "I blew it."
And of course, if you never have to admit responsibility, you also never have to repent for any errors that "may have been made". You never have to look inside your soul, or your karma, or whatever you have, and consider that you might possibly not have handled that last incident in the best possible way. Because you didn't make the errors: they "were made."
The other two groups who dote on the passive voice, and use it almost exclusively, are academics, and business management types. The business management types, of course, operate under the same imperatives as the politicians. No business executive ever wants to come out and admit that he screwed up, big time; "mistakes were made." Also, neither business executives nor politicians (two groups which interbreed regularly) ever ever want to report bad news up to the next level. The boss must only hear good news. The boss wants to know that the situation is completely under control; so that's what his juniors tell him. In the passive voice. Regardless of the actual facts on the ground.
It's that nearly universal business practice that makes me almost willing to believe that the board members at Hewlett-Packard genuinely did not know what their underlings had commissioned the private investigators to do. Nobody wanted to tell the boss anything but what s/he expected to hear. (Almost willing to believe...)
I haven't been around academics enough to know why they use the passive voice. Maybe they want to sound like people in power. But it seems very odd to me that the most powerful people in both business and politics, deliberately express themselves in a way that makes it impossible to tell what they actually do, or whether they ever do anything. Maybe they don't, and that's the whole point.
This is a selective phenomenon, by the way. Not all politicians do this. Read the Gettysburg Address. Or any of FDR's fireside chats. Or Winston Churchill's speeches.