How the Passive Voice Allowed Flint’s Water Crisis to Persist

by Kitanya Harrison, Published on Zora, June

Flint still doesn’t have clean water.

This statement has become a rallying cry, from city streets to social media. Yet it’s bothered me ever since I first heard it. Yes, it’s true that Flint’s water remains tainted and unsafe after five years. But the fact that we use the passive tense to talk about this travesty is the real outrage. Flint’s lack of safe, potable water isn’t the result of faulty infrastructure or a catastrophic accident at the water treatment plant. Government officials knowingly allowed poisons into the city’s water supply to cut costs. Active, evocative language that gets right to the ugly heart of things is necessary to tell the story and sound the clarion call.

“This was a crime committed against a city of 96,400 people to save $140 a day.”

When state and local officials decided to switch the source of Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the heavily polluted Flint River, they did not put in place a proper water treatment plan. Bacteria accumulated, and the disinfectants corroded the pipes, causing lead and other contaminants to leach into the water. When, almost immediately, it became clear the water was tainted and sickening residents, officials as high up as the Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, downplayed the crisis, then attempted to cover it up. The Safe Drinking Water Act was violated. Records were falsified. Saying “Flint still doesn’t have clean water” helps mask the fact that this was the result of a crime committed against a city of 96,400 people to save $140 a day on corrosion inhibiting chemicals.

Passive language is a powerful propaganda tool. It nearly always erases the subject — the doer of the action — and obscures blame. In this case, it erases the perpetrators of the Flint water crisis. How little the word “poison” or some similar construction is used when Flint is discussed is also evidence of the problem. Every person injured by those toxins was, in my opinion, assaulted. Every death caused by exposure to them should be deemed involuntary manslaughter. Yet we’re talking about Flint’s crisis like a meteor fell from the sky and burst the sewage pipes.

The number of people who continue to be affected is staggering. Most of them are poor. Most of them are Black. That matters.

Oppressors often hide behind politeness. The “civilized” language we’re using to discuss the crime in Flint is insidious. It is trained into us through unrelenting exposure. Its purpose is to make us feel like telling the unvarnished truth is untoward or even hysterical, that the “calmer” more “civilized” language will make us more likely to be believed and taken seriously. Simply saying “Black Lives Matter” caused a mouth-frothing backlash for a reason. It got too close to the truth: Those lives that don’t matter can be destroyed on a whim, and the whims of the powerful are far too often protected at our expense.


Kitanya Harrison *squinting in Nanny of the Maroons* | I write. A lot. | patreon.com/kitanyaharrison | Newsletter: http://eepurl.com/dw26rT | IG: kitanyaharrison

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