Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Who is your “we”?
Whenever you say or write the word “we,” who do you mean? Your family? Your colleagues? Your friends? Fellow fans of a team, sport, hobby, avocation, activity? Right-thinking allies?
“We” have a family reunion every year.
“We” raised $4,000 for the public library last quarter.
“We” are working to recruit new students to our program.
“We” root for the Royals (or the Jayhawks, or the Texas Tech Raiders).
“We” (by which I mean human beings) define ourselves in part through our communities, our groups—and our pronouns. We show who we think we belong with through who we include in “we” “us” “our”
Who are your “we”s?
“We” (by which I mean human beings again) also define ourselves in part through who we do NOT include in our “we.”
“We” may live in a red state, but at least “we” defeated Kris Kobach for governor.
“We [right-thinking people (joke intended), aka Democrats, progressives, and moderates] defeated Kobach”
“we haven’t fully assimilated African-American citizens.”
The last “we” comes from Patrick Buchanan by way of a column from the observant Leonard Pitts, Jr. “Who is we?” Pitts asks.
“When Buchanan says “we,” he does mean America. But when he says “America,” he means white people.”
Even as Buchanan states that African-Americans helped build this country, he simultaneously excludes them: “we” have not yet assimilated “them.” “We” must mean white people.
The definition of who is included as “Americans” matters in whether “we” Americans will continue as a united nation or fail in the ideals on which the country is founded.
“If America fails,” Pitts writes, “…it will be because he [Buchanan] and people like him still arrogantly arrogate unto themselves, as if handed down from the very hand of God, the right to determine who “we” is.
“We” includes and excludes simultaneously.
It is possible—maybe even likely—that Buchanan is not aware of how his use of “we” excludes African-Americans. He simply arrogantly assumes the whiteness of America. It’s that very lack of awareness about the effects of our words that I fight against.
I’ve written before about how pronouns send subtle messages, as the use of “we” and “you” did in the Inaugural address. While Pitts’ column (or mine) is unlikely to change Pat Buchanan’s perspective, “we” who care about inclusion and fairness and becoming aware of our own biases can do better. We can start noticing who our “we” is and who “we” is not. And we can deliberately include more people as “us”
Try for one day noticing who you refer to with those pronouns that include you. It’s hard to notice! And it may take someone else to help us spot the assumptions behind what we say.
In my own “we”s I noticed some that were obvious and literal—“we [my friends and I] should try out that new microbrewery.” But I also spotted some that were more subtle and unspoken--
“We aren’t doing enough for the homeless.”
When I say, “We need to do more for the homeless,” I’m excluding the homeless from “us” and presuming that “we” with homes are the ones who are capable of making change, without those who are insecure in their housing included in that process except as passive recipients of our good works and largesse.
Sometimes we even use “we” to include ourselves in an idea while excluding ourselves from responsibility for acting.
“We [by which I mean you, local government officials] aren’t doing enough for the homeless.”
Compare that to “We, meaning the community that includes those without homes and including me, need to do more to figure out what to do.”
Pronouns reveal the unconscious nature of our language, words we human beings use automatically without struggling to choose just the right word. But sometimes we who care about being aware should choose those pronouns more deliberately. It may take someone else pointing out when we are using pronouns to exclude without awareness. And we definitely need those like Pitts to call out others using pronouns to exclude through prejudice.
Those like Connie Schultz in her column on calling Puerto Ricans “they” in contrast to Americans. But that’s a pronoun for another day, one you can start watching in your own language.
Part Two to come: Who is your “they”?
Or is it Them?
On this particular day in the US we’re dealing with two devastating events--
Both disastrous events causing lost lives and physical destruction. Both causing shocking trauma and lifelong fears. Both changing how people act in the world, what they trust, how safe they feel.
Some say the hurricanes are bringing us together like 9/11 did, reuniting Americans after such a long period of divisiveness politically and socially. But I’m not so sure.
I’d have to ignore the fact of economic divides—yes, the hurricanes hit neighborhoods of different economic strata, but the residents differed in their abilities to evacuate and will differ in their abilities to recover financially.
And then I’d have to ignore the language used. Writing and speaking about the hurricanes, people express horror and sympathy for what has happened or is happening to “them.” Not “us.” “Them.”
After 9/11, even though the murders happened in specific East Coast locations, the terrorism happened to us, to Americans. It was directed at us, so we took it that way.
Of course, hurricanes are (mostly) natural events, not political plots, no matter what Rush Limbaugh claims. Harvey didn’t have it in for Americans. Irma isn’t trying to destroy the United States and its people.
But when politicians give speeches to rally support and uplift spirits, they haven’t been talking about how much damage the hurricanes are doing to us, the US. When governors or mayors encourage “us” to keep our spirits up or tell us “we” can make it, they explicitly include only the residents of their states. Texas and Florida, not the United States.
Yes, in some ways, that focus on the states makes sense. Governors represent their states, so you might expect them to address their own residents first and foremost. Governors have authority only within their state, to make proclamations and send aid. And the hurricanes did cause damage, death, and suffering directly to Texans and Floridians, not to all Americans.
But the governors’ emphasis has been on what makes the residents of their states especially strong, or especially able to deal with hurricanes, or especially resilient and helpful—separate and apart and explicitly not as Americans. It’s not Americans coming together to help each other, to rebuild, to prepare. It’s Texans. It’s Floridians.
I’m certainly not resentful that I was left out of reassuring speeches, even though I’ve watched the events with horror. Luckily I was watching, after all, not experiencing. But that is true for most residents of Texas, too. They were watching, sometimes from some distance. But the governors have chosen to emphasize the unity of the state, not the United States.
The results for Florida are still to come, as I’m writing this, so I’ll be listening to hear how Governor Rick Scott addresses the people afterward. Early on, he tweeted that "FL knows how important it is to be prepared.” Texas Governor Greg Abbott, on Good Morning America, praised not Americans but Texans for their on-site actions:
"You have to be proud to see the way our fellow Texans have responded," Abbott said, "whether they be the first responders or just neighbors helping neighbors to deal with this overwhelming catastrophe."
Even for actions that everyone in the world could take, Gov. Abbott still referred only to Texans. When he called for a day of prayer, August 31, he called for a day of prayer in Texas alone, calling people of all faiths in Texas, not in America, to pray as "one united people." He can’t declare a day of prayer for all Americans, but he didn’t even invite all Americans to join in.
I don’t mean to take anything away from the governors or from the anguish dumped on Texans and Floridians. They have every right to band together as Texans, as Floridians, and to be proud of how they unify to act together.
I’m simply pointing out that there are times when we in the United States see ourselves as Americans, and times when we see ourselves as members of smaller communities. Texas. Florida. After 9/11, New Yorkers had a special place of honor for enduring the greatest loss of life. And I’m sure there were speeches at the time encouraging New Yorkers and praising the resilience of New Yorkers. But they were also Americans, and the hit was taken by all Americans.
What does it mean that the hit of the hurricanes is being taken by Texans and Floridians, not Americans?
If that attack on our shores were being seen as an attack on America, we might all see ourselves as responsible for the recovery. To some extent that’s happening. The federal legislature is planning an increase in funds for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. National relief for Hurricane Harvey has already been promised. And announcers at sporting events everywhere are calling for donations, and people everywhere are donating.
If we saw the hurricanes as threats to all of us, not just Texans and Floridians, we could be rallying and fund-raising for our cities, our houses, our infrastructure, not for theirs.
If we saw the hurricanes as threats to all of us, not just Texans and Floridians, we could be talking about what happens after immediate cleanup and repairs, about what caused this to happen and what we need to do to keep this from happening again, in the future—to us.
If we saw the hurricanes as threats to all of us, not just Texans and Floridians, we could be talking about how important it is for all of us to be prepared for the next weather catastrophe.
But it’s not happening to us, just to them. So we can donate money, and we can stay glued to the Weather Channel until the most recent hurricane has passed by or weakened. Then we can return to our lives, those of us who are Americans but not affected directly by that particular hurricane, by that particular bit of weather, by that particular change in the climate.
And we can pretend that it’s not happening to us, just to them.