There is a real problem with plural personal pronouns. It is embedded in our culture and our language, and it slips by the common observer without so much as a pause. These are words like we, they, our, us, them, and their. Today, I want to discuss the words “we” and “they.” These words need to be discussed in depth because they matter in the deepest sense of how each of us frames our life. In short, I think “we” and “they” have been a source of great and pernicious evil in society, and most importantly in breaking down the mind of the individual.
Whenever someone says something like, “We just need a sensible policy on this,” or “We all just need to stick together,” or “They’ve decided that some racial slurs are OK, but others aren’t” I shudder to think what this person means by “we” and “they.”
Let’s take my first example. What if someone were to say, “We need to have a sensible drug policy.” Well, this may be a cliche, but “what do you mean by WE?” Do I have a say in the matter? Is someone going to ask me to sit down and offer my ideas on a drug policy? Do you mean the State of Texas, the elementary school down the road, the U.S government, the UN? It is a very dangerous game to use the word “we.” What really should have been said, and what is going to happen is “Somebody with power should force a drug policy down our throats, and I hope it will be reasonable because frankly, you and I will have no say.” Government officials use the word “we” on purpose to imply their legitimacy…to enforce that they speak for you, and make decisions for you, but most of us just let that “we” slip by. This is dangerous. You give your tacit approval when you let others say “we” without asking why they want to include you in their logic, and in what group you are included.
One of the most tyrannical uses of the plural personal pronoun is when someone wants to speak for over 300 million people living in the geographic borders of the United States. This implies that everyone must submit to whatever a small group decides…even if it is the majority of voters (which in fact represent a non-majority of the population):
- We need tighter gun control
- We need safer food
- We owe our freedom to them (that’s 3 plural pronouns..woohoo!)
- We need to lose weight in America
- We all need health care
- we, we, we…
A related aside: it is a geographical accident that you or I were born anywhere. Even though there is a need to belong, you were not born an American, a German, a Russian or whatever. From my perspective, belonging to any group is voluntary. You should not be forced into this group, and if you have to play along to get by, then so be it.
Now, on to “they.” I have a specific example for this one. A twitter friend was recently upset at how the slur of “cracker” was used on MSNBC (which they have done more than once: here and here) seems to go unpunished, while other slurs get the hammer (I think THE example of this is when a non-black person uses the word “nigger,” in any context…I’m bracing for the hate mail). Anyway, in her dissatisfaction she mentioned that “they” don’t allow some slurs to be said, while others were just fine. I was confused by her term “they.” Because I am so used to this word being said to refer to those who make the regulations, I thought that is what she meant. Note: Mentally, I usually make no distinction between the mainstream media and government; they are essentially 2 branches on the same tree. It got my feathers ruffled, because I thought she was calling for more regulation on the words that are said in public. Of course, I will have none of that. It is a slippery slope when those who are outraged by some or another behavior complain that “they” are not policing this enough.
In the end, I think she simply meant all of those of the “politically correct” nature, rather than those in power who create tyranny (although these are often the same people, unfortunately). However, it scared me. It scared me because enough people might get outraged that they think “they” should do something (for all of “us,” of course). It scared me that a government crony might take advantage of this outrage and issue more of “their” control. It is for this reason that plural personal pronouns should be used precisely, and those who do not wish to be included in the collective should speak out, when these pronouns are bandied about.
It is my opinion, that the “they” in the media can say whatever they darn well please. In fact, anybody can say just about anything they want to, legally. That is what freedom of speech is. It is up to the listener to exert his or her influence through their own choice. This could be simply not listening/watching, sending the corporation responsible a communication of disapproval, or it could be exposing them to the public via their own communication. Of course, I am speaking of how things SHOULD be rather than how they are.
In any case, I am very careful about those plural pronouns, and I do not think we should make them do anything.