(The following essay is a guest post written by my father, poet Rowell S. Hoff, expanding on a theme from a poem he wrote a few years ago. I have included the poem at the end. -Geoff Hoff)
The English pronoun we is difficult.
Of course it is not difficult when it refers to the person speaking and the person or persons he or she is addressing. The “royal we,” the “journalist’s we” and the “nurse’s we” (“How are we today?”) are also fairly clear, although odd: they simply mean, in the first two instances, “I,” and in the third, “you.”
But we is often used to refer to an undefined and undefinable mass of persons that includes the person speaking or writing, and this can be difficult to clear up. This usage often appears to refer to all the people of every station in a given country or organization, many or most of whom could not conceivably take an active part in the actions being suggested, as in “We must improve our health care system.” It might be called the “polemic we.”
The polemic we is frequently used in scolding. The child utters a forbidden word at table and the father says, “We don’t say that!” Here, we apparently refers either to the family or to members of a certain class. Taken in its literal sense, the sentence is evidently untrue, for a member of the family has in fact just said the word. Nevertheless, the usage may be justifiable as a concise statement of a principle. Such philosophical or hortatory usage seems reasonable so long as the extension of the pronoun is clear, that is, so long as it is known to whom we refers.
Nevertheless, care is needed. Something possibly true of some of those addressed may not be true of all of them. An example, very often followed by a clause beginning with “but” or “however,” is “We are a peace-loving people,” a sentence that has with minor variations been pronounced by John F. Kennedy, Tony Blair, George W. Bush, and who knows how many English-speaking Presidents, Prime Ministers, Senators, Congressmen, Members of Parliament, Lords, preachers, journalists, etc.
Use of the polemic we often occasions a descent into simple falsehood. A popular example of this is the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident” in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence of the United States, followed by a series of things that the “we” referred to were alleged to believe, for example, “that all men are created equal,” having “…certain inalienable rights,” etc. This was, in fact, a lie; the signers of the document, many of them slave-holders or involved in the procurement and sale of slaves, all of them leaders in systematically taking over vast areas of North America from its inhabitants by violence and guile, could not, any of them, have believed either that all men are created equal or that they have inalienable rights beyond the right to die. In this case the extension of the pronoun “we” went well beyond the persons who signed the document, for the title line proclaims that it is “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.”
We need to think about these things.
Doggerel About Who Is We
Here is a question: Who is we?
For pundits, kings and CEOs,
we is I and us is me.
The nurse’s friendly we is you,
her How are we today? untrue.
Problematickest of all
is the we that people use to call
those people things like
nigger! honky! hunky! wog!
hun! gook! limey! frog!
jap! gringo! running dog!
kafir! bitch! pig! flic!
dago! polack! raghead! spic!
redneck! foreign devil! nerd!
papist! kike! fag! dyke!
People have a hateful word
for people people do not like,
believing that always, come what may,
“our we” is better than their they.
But the problem’s not so hard to resolve,
so long as the human heart can evolve
to the point where the finally human mind
is in love with the oneness of mankind.
December 27, 2007
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