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Just who are “we”?

Tonto:  What is wrong, Kimosabe?
Lone Ranger:  We’re surrounded by bloodthirsty indians, Tonto.  What are we going to do?
Tonto:  What you mean, “we,” white man?

SOTU We 2Thanks to Jay Livingston for this post on behalf of the Montclair State Sociology Department.  He paints a compelling picture of how the collective language of “we” has been increasingly conscripted by modern politicians to create — or fabricate — an impression of common purpose and common allegiance.

With politics dividing us more deeply than ever, it might seem beneficial to employ rhetoric designed to bridge the ideology gap.  In practice, however, disingenuous expressions of harmony and unified vision can do a lot more harm than good.

For one, when a demonstrably divisive leader — a U. S. president, for example — claims that he is the leading advocate of unity and cooperation, he makes himself a lightning rod for accusations of hypocrisy and manipulation that breed cynicism in place of optimism.  For another, by claiming the high ground, he implicitly vilifies all who oppose him, even if they do so from positions of principle.  Either way, the ideological rift grows wider, not narrower.

Perhaps worst of all, the collective “we” diffuses responsibility from the individual onto the collective:  since all of us are responsible, none of us is responsible.  This produces the effective equivalent of such politicalisms as “Mistakes were made.”  Somewhere, someone did something wrong.  There’s plenty of blame to go around, but nowhere for it to stick.

In short, fake unity achieves the opposite of unification.

But when there really is cohesion, whether within a team, a business, a community, or a society, the collective “we” becomes a priceless asset, including the lowly with the high, the rank and file with the leaders, the grunts with the visionaries.  Like it or not, we’re all in it together.  And the more we try to shoulder our collective burdens with one mind and one heart, the more we will succeed.


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