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Why "we" is the worst word in the world

By Micah Tillman
web posted August 20, 2007

It is amazing how many things I've done in my lifetime (and before). I learn about new accomplishments every day. I saved France, evidently, twice. Before that I threw off the British yoke. And if it wasn't for me, the world would be enslaved to communism.

The more I hear about myself, the more I like me. At least until I hear about all the terrible things I've done too. From what I gather, I've saved the world and ruined it. And I'm still doing both even as we speak.

Eventually, of course, I became suspicious. I wasn't even born when I did some of the things I did. And I was really wonderful and horribly bad at the same time. Pride turned to shame and confusion.

It's taken a while, but I've developed a theory. The theory is that I've been listening to people who use the word "we." To restore my sanity, I decided to avoid them.

But it's impossible. We all say "we."

So instead, I decided to take a personal vow of we-lessness. I've managed to fulfill the vow relatively well, but we is a tough habit to kick. And once you kick it you feel like you've lost something.

(There instead of using the first-person-plural, I used the second-person-general, implying that how things are for me is how they are for everyone. You should try being an archetype sometime. "It makes you feel good.")

I began to wonder whether there wasn't any way to legitimately use "we." Do groups ever do anything, or is it only the members of the groups who act? Then again, doesn't "we" sometimes mean the persons in the group, rather than the group itself (whatever "the group itself" is)? For example: "We are (each) feeling happy." Perhaps I shouldn't be too rash, throwing out we altogether.

Philosophers grapple with the we problem from time to time. They call it the question of "corporate action." And its answer has not only personal, legal, and political consequences. What, for instance, does it mean for a corporation to do something? How can a corporation make a decision, or be liable for something? Only people think. Only persons act.

And what does it mean that "we" have chosen a political representative? How can a group choose, especially when half of it voted for the loser? John Locke solved the problem by appealing to the "body politic." Just as the human body manages to decide and act even thought it is made of different parts and competing drives, the body politic can as well.

But isn't that assuming a lot about how human beings work? And do we really think that the interaction of physical parts and drives is an adequate metaphor for the votes cast by persons in an election? Maybe we do. But the fact that Locke — the philosopher of democracy — appeals to the human body as a metaphor shows us that even he is uncomfortable with saying that groups make decisions.

So, I started with confusion over how I could do something before I was born, or be evil and good at the same time. I ended with questioning the existence of the corporations who've employed me and wondering whether I understand the political system I love.

My very identity — dependent as it is on family, ethnic, and national histories — was threatened by the illegitimacy of the first-person-plural. Who am I if there is no we?

But who are we if there is no me? After all, I still don't put much stock in the existence of groups. I think that most of what we ascribe to them is a projection of personhood onto a non-personal fiction.

Perhaps renouncing the first-person-plural is a lonely, scary thing to do, and that's why everyone says "we." Or perhaps there is a legitimate use for the word that I have yet to discover. But one thing I know for sure: how we use it now is vastly problematic. ESR

Micah Tillman teaches your children philosophy at The Catholic University of America. His articles have appeared here, on RelevantMagazine.com, and The Free Liberal. He can be contacted via e-mail at micahtillman@yahoo.com.


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