Alright, alright, I know there’s so much important and serious going on in the anticorruption world, and the world in general, that I have to apologize right up front for the topic of this post, which is has virtually no importance to anything substantive. But I’ll post about it anyway, partly because it’s been bugging me, partly because right now I’m too burnt out to take up anything more weighty. Here’s today’s trivial terminological complaint:
The term “passive bribery.”
I don’t know when or how this happened, but in large segments of the anticorruption community, it’s become standard to refer to the act of requesting, demanding, or taking a bribe as “passive bribery”—which is contrasted with “active bribery,” defined as the act of promising, offering, or giving a bribe. This terminology has become so standard that it appears repeatedly in glossaries prepared by international organizations (see, for example, here and here) and leading anticorruption NGOs (see, for example, here and here), though to the best of my knowledge these terms aren’t actually used in any legal codes, nor in the UN Convention Against Corruption.
The problem is that describing the act of taking (or demanding) a bribe as “passive bribery” is both an abuse of language and potentially confusing or misleading.
It’s an abuse of language because “passive” doesn’t mean simply “being on the receiving end of,” certainly not in the context of a transaction. We don’t refer to buying as “passive selling,” nor do we refer to catching as “passive throwing.” Perhaps more apt, we don’t refer to the receipt or solicitation of charitable donations as “passive charity.” Passive, at least in its most common (relevant) definition, means “receiving or enduring without resistance,” or “not reacting to what happens, or not acting or taking part.” A public official who demands and receives a bribe is hardly “passive” in that or any other sense.
Furthermore, to refer to such an individual as engaged in “passive bribery” is misleading because it connotes a kind of helplessness, or mere acquiescence. These connotations are understandable because they are implied by the actual meaning of the word “passive,” but they’re often wholly inappropriate in the context of a bribe-taking or bribe-demanding official. “Passive bribery” also sounds less bad, and less serious, than “active bribery,” even though most people would view the two parties to the bribe transaction as equally culpable. Some might plausibly argue that what has been termed “passive bribery” is actually worse, in than the public official who solicits a bribe is not only acting in her own interest, but is betraying her obligations to her country. Additionally, this use of the terms “active” and “passive” bribery is misleading because we often want to distinguish those situations in which the bribe-taker is the initiating party from those in which the bribe-receiver is the initiating party, and the active/passive distinction might appear intended to be making that sort of distinction, at least to those who are less familiar with how these terms have come to be (mis)used in this context.
Is this a big deal? No, not really. Lots of fields have jargon terms with meanings that differ from common usage, sometimes in ways that are confusing to lay people. And most of the relevant glossaries that include the term “passive bribery” are careful to explain that “passive” here means “on the receiving end of,” not “passive” in the usual sense of “inactive.” But plenty of people do get confused by this odd usage, and this confusion is easily avoidable, because there are plenty of other ways to distinguish between bribe-takers and bribe-givers—that is, between the demand side and the supply side of bribe transactions. Indeed, “bribe-taking” and “bribe-giving,” or “demand-side” and “supply side,” much more accurately capture the relevant distinction here than “passive” and “active.” And when an official demands a bribe as a condition for taking or abstaining from some action, we should call it what it really is—extortion—rather than resorting to what sounds like a euphemism.
So let’s stop abusing language, and at the same time stop inadvertently implying that the act of demanding a bribe isn’t as serious (or that the bribe-demanders aren’t as culpable) by dropping “passive bribery” from our vocabulary.