“[United Airlines CEO Oscar] Munoz’s email is not, as I suggested on social media, a perfect use of the passive voice. What it is instead is a perfect example of the bureaucratic voice. The bureaucratic voice makes use of both active and passive constructions, but its purpose is uniform: to erase and efface any active agent on the part of the bureaucracy. […] Munoz employs the passive voice at key moments to make it clear there are no other actors in this drama other than [David] Dao. In one spectacular sentence, Munoz writes of Dao, ‘He was approached a few more times after that in order to gain his compliance to come off the aircraft, and each time he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent.’ There is clearly a series of confrontations happening here, yet he is the only individual identified in the entire sentence. No one did the approaching and no one tried to gain his compliance; instead, the passenger just sat there on the plane, becoming more and more belligerent all by himself. […]

“In Munoz’s entire statement, this sentence stands out as the most chilling: ‘Our agents were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight. He repeatedly declined to leave.’ The phrase ‘left with no choice’ is calculated and deliberate, and every rhetorical move of the preceding paragraphs is leading up to this moment. The bureaucratic state never acts of its own volition; it is always reactionary, and it always acts because the victim leaves it no choice. The mind, of course, reels with all the choices available to United’s management in this instance: offering a higher compensation figure until someone agreed, transporting the crew to Louisville on another plane, acceding to Dao’s request that, as a doctor, he had patients to see the following morning and deserved priority, or simply waiting. But once this became a display of power and authority, they were left with no choice but violence.

“The effect of United’s email is the onslaught of evasion to create an overall impression that the actions of the airline and its employees was out of their hands; that Dao, as the only autonomous and culpable figure in the drama, brought this on himself, and that the ensuing violence, while regrettable, was unavoidable. The more violence done to an individual, the more active agency he or she will be given by the bureaucratic voice, and the more removed and abstract the bureaucracy itself will become. When descriptions of violence are unavoidable, they will emphatically be in passive constructions: dissidents ‘were executed,’ their bodies ‘were later found’ and subsequently ‘were buried.’

“An uninformed person could read this email and think nothing United did was wrong — because it appears United did nothing at all.” (Colin Dickey, Longreads):


The Elements of Bureaucratic Style