Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Universal They and the Non-inclusive We

Considering the poor communication skills I see exhibited each day, I am amazed that actual communication ever happens. Yet it does. In reading on-line message boards and social media, it seems people are very interested in expressing themselves and connecting with others, but don't want to spend the time to be clear, to spell correctly (not only pass spell check but actually use the correct words as well) and proofread. I still get correspondence from people who confuse "since" and "sense" and who think "alot" is a word. But the miscommunication goes beyond this, the use of cliché and vague tropes are ubiquitous. I am talking about the Universal They and the Non-inclusive We.

The Universal They is the use of the pronoun "they" when you want to blame someone, but you are too lazy to research the specifics. This particular trope is handy for the paranoid among us. Certainly, just because you are paranoid, doesn't mean no one is out is to get you, but at least you could specify whom you are talking about when you share this with the world.  The paranoid use the Universal They to describe the government "They are tapping our phones," to describe corporations "they are poisoning us," or the world in general "they want to steal my poetry." The last one is from a friend who once asked me to help him setup a firewall for his computer to protect his poetry. "You setup a firewall to protect your computer from viruses, not protect your poetry. No one wants your poetry," I said. I am not very tactful, but subtlety rarely works with the paranoid.

Whenever anyone invokes the Universal They, for clarity's sake (and sanity's), always follow up with "Who are they?" When you push for deeper specifics, you usually find kinks in the armor of their paranoia. Who is tapping your phone?  The government. Who specifically? The FBI. Why would they be doing that? Are you a member of a cartel or a mafia family? Why would the federal government exert any money or energy on you? Political discussions on social media can be fun but also scary at times. People believe this stuff.

The Non-inclusive We is less innocuous. Those who use it are not paranoid, just self-righteous. Those who use the Non-inclusive We want to say something about society at large, but want to exclude themselves. They say things like this "We are a selfish society" then go on and talk about how unselfish they are.  They say "We are obsessed with material goods" and then continue to tell you about their low-budget DIY holiday season. They are a less scary crowd than the Universal They folks but more annoying. They are usually more educated, so should know better. You can see this in a lot of editorial writing. I see it sometime with writers I actually like. Here it is from Barbara Kingsolver in her essay "Jabberwocky" which is full of the Non-inclusive We:

    "But we bought the goods, or we kept our mouths shut.
    If we felt disturbed by the idea of pulverizing civilizations
    as the best way to settle our differences --- or had trouble
    explaining it to our kids as adult behavior --- we weren't
    talking about it. "

This is from page 222 from her fabulous collection of essays High Tide in Tucson from HarperPerrenial. I agree with everything she has to say in this essay. I just wish it was a better essay and less self-righteous.

While in casual conversation, how do you respond to the Non-inclusive We? We assume it is inclusive. "We" is a collective pronoun after all with the assumption that the speaker is included in the "we."  So next Christmas, when one of your self-righteous friends says to you: "We are a selfish, materialistic culture," respond by asking them, "Why are you so selfish?" That should get the conversation going! 

1 comment:

Olga said...

We certainly hope they don't read this.