What Do You Mean, ‘We’?

I’m finally following up on a suggestion made some months back by Frank Williams at Eastern Kentucky University, to investigate the proliferation of the first-person plural in what appear to be dubious circumstances. He writes, “Decades ago I was taught not to use the first-person pronoun in serious writing, but instead to use the editorial ‘we,’ meaning ‘me’ (or maybe ‘I’), and I’ve seen the variety of ‘we’s’ that are explained on the Web. However in recent years I’ve seen what appears to be a different usage: ‘we’ meaning a small proportion of the general population (tho’ perhaps numerically large) but probably not including the author.” As an example, Williams cites David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts,” writing in The New York Times that “we have excessive fear of vaccines”—a fear that the author himself may not share.

Turns out Williams is not the only one thinking along these lines. Chris Elliott, the “readers’ editor” at The Guardian, gives space to a reader who cites headlines announcing the confirmation of the Higgs-Boson particle as meaning that “now we understand the universe better.”

One is tempted, I suppose, to quote Tonto’s line to the Lone Ranger, when he claims that “we” are in trouble: “What do you mean ‘we,’ Kemo Sabe?”

But to my mind, that’s exactly the point. I’m not bothered by what Chris Elliott dubs the “exclusionary we.” All instances of the first-person plural are exclusionary to some degree; every “we” implies a “they” or a “you.” The now-viral “No You Can’t” video featuring John Boehner’s response to the “Yes, we can” Obama slogan exemplifies this use. The speakers and singers repeating the slogan may or may not think that they, personally, can … whatever. They are, rather, heralding the advent of a collective willingness to make change that they find to be abroad in the country. In his response, Boehner not only declines participation in this collective “we” (that would have meant his shouting “No, we can’t”), but announces his intention to limit its enterprise.

I spend a lot of time marking creative-writing efforts, and I tend to use first-person plural to indicate the persona of the reader. When I scribble in the margin of a story, “We spend a lot of time wondering who this so-called ‘friend’ is,” I may have spent no personal time in wonderment. Moreover, the student is free to think that he’s made the friend’s identity clear enough. But with any luck, he understands that some difficulty may lie in his prose that is confined neither to his instructor’s obtuseness nor to his inner understanding.

I also encourage literature students to use first-person plural. Heaven knows that “When Gatsby lingers outside Daisy’s house, he evokes our pity” is infinitely preferable to “When Gatsby lingers outside Daisy’s house, it is possible for the reader to feel pity for him”—even though some readers (including, conceivably, the author of the paper) may not finally count themselves among the Gatsy-pitiers.

Writing is a persuasive art; “we” is a fair tool in the box. No amount of “we”-ing is going to win converts to marginal stances. When I read, “We understand the universe better as a result of the Higgs-Boson particle discovery,” I count myself amongst the humanity that collectively has access to more understanding by way of its scientists. When  I read, “And so we have excessive fear of vaccines,” I see the logic whereby Ropeik exposes an irrational fear among otherwise rational people, who might in some instances include me. When I read, “Of course we all resent paying taxes that go to the irresponsible 47 percent,” I think, “Speak for yourself, Lone Ranger,” and, unpersuaded, turn my attention elsewhere. In the long run, I guess I cherish the invitation to join more than I resent the assumption that I have done so. After all, isn’t it “we” who “hold these truths to be self-evident,” regardless of what exclusive group first set the words down?

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