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”?