“What do you mean by we?”
These are the words of a favorite college professor. The question startled me, like an abrupt slap in an otherwise pleasant conversation. I couldn’t find the words to respond. At the time, I had been a very enthusiastic student. I attended university like Darwin the Galapagos. Out on my own for the first time, exploring an exciting new place that seemed to reward my intense hunger for knowledge.
My life before college had felt suffocating. It seemed like I had an excess of thoughts, words, emotions, curiosity, and doubt, among others. I drove my mother to exasperation with my relentless questioning about life. “Go read it in the Bible!” she would end up saying. I felt confined to an increasingly dark, narrow space: between a strict religious upbringing and the marginalization of never quite fitting-in in high school. So my enthusiasm when I attended college, especially when I learned about new ways of thinking and modern topics for the first time, was a bit much.
Some of my classmates attended lectures still recovering from hangovers or still high from the night before, but I was annoyingly cheerful, bright-eyed and lightning quick with questions and answers. I was learning about existentialism, modern and postmodern philosophies for the very first time and was nothing less than completely thrilled about it.
These were refreshing new ways of thinking for me: Doubt was not quickly squelched with some old cliché or fearsome religious command—doubt was put on a pedestal, explored and set as the golden rule. Doubt, uncertainty was the universal human experience; there was no such thing as an absolute truth. An ellipse, pi—truth as we know it is an approximation, an infinite approximation at best.
I wrote an enthusiastic essay on the subjective nature of reality which I proudly titled: Superstructures in the Nothingness. In it, I condemned the human need to impose a false order on a world too complex for our grasp. To my surprise, my passionate righteousness was not well-received. “What Do You Mean by We?” my beloved professor asked in response. He also wrote all over my paper in bright red marker. “Be very careful when making generalizations,” he wrote on the last page, “Be very careful with you, them and we.”
I did not challenge him, I simply nodded and took it all to heart. His caution has stayed with me ever since. That and he once called some of my writing “overly melodramatic”. I wouldn’t have taken him so seriously had I not respected him so much. A former Jesuit who gave insightful lectures on modern and postmodern literature, he seemed to know a thing or two about breaking out of old confines.
Quite impressionable and feeling somewhat ashamed of myself, I immediately saw the wisdom in his warning and quickly began implementing it in all of my writing. He didn’t want me to become the very thing I was criticizing I thought: An ideologue who imposed their beliefs as better, or perhaps someone who put ego over compassion.
As a result, all my subsequent college writing omitted the use of you, them and we exclusively. This was no easy feat, especially when analyzing the works of high-impact cultural figures such as Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. I went the route of criticizing each of them for their generalizations instead.
However, in the years after I graduated, I began to feel a dark bitterness slowly growing inside of me. I began thinking more cynically about his censor, especially as I observed other adults exploiting you, them and we all the time. Politicians are the best at it:
All we do is win, win, win. We won last night. (Donald Trump at his Iowa rally on June 21, 2017)
I feel like the one kid in the playground told not to hit, while all the other kids keep doing it. Why do the other kids get to do it and not me? Did my professor caution me because he wanted me to be better—to hold myself to a higher standard? Or did he do it to try to control and restrain me? Are revolutionary ideas especially unwelcome and unpleasant when they come from a woman? A minority woman, no less? After all, many colored immigrants, like myself, know all too well what Donald Trump means by we: it doesn’t include us. It is a great privilege to use you, them and we unquestionably. Certain people cannot wield it: power in simple form.
“What Do You Mean by We?” I would like to ask every raging demagogue, every railing populist. Ironically, the subjective nature of reality itself has become the most effective shield for hate groups and nationalist agitators: “Fake news”, “alternative facts”, “the liberal media”. Doubt. Nothing deflects criticism better than doubt, no holy man yelling laws from a mountain can do better than doubt.
Postmodern philosophers would be shocked to learn to what ends their expositions—on the fluid and subjective nature of reality—have been used: to bolster, of all things, a return to old colonialist ideals, racism, xenophobia, hierarchies and worldviews cultivated before the dawn of science. Apparently, nobody identifies with an iconoclast better than a fundamentalist. More absurdly, at a time when the fastest, easiest tools of communication and fact-checking are literally at our fingertips.
“What Do You Mean by We? Be very careful when making generalizations. Be very careful with you, them and we.”
Perhaps an absolute truth will never be reached, but reversion into stereotyping and tribalism can be prevented. There are certainly realities much closer to the truth than others—realities that can endure criticism without deflection. And ideologies whose bearers can uphold their dignity without resorting to fear-based tactics such as name-calling, violence or oppression.
Maybe I, or anyone with any shred of self-doubt or decency, will never reach everyone when using you, them and we, but we can certainly try, acknowledging that using you, them and we is a privilege and a power that should always be questioned. It should always require a thorough explanation and critical examination especially when it does not include all.
Text and images by M.P. Baecker
(photos in order of appearance: Columbus monument in Barcelona 1&3, 2: Oculus in the Pantheon, 4: Roman Forum)