Abuses of the First Person Plural

I’ve resolved and failed to keep the promise to never write in the thinkpiece plural, the use of “we” that means either “most people, but certainly not me and other high-minded people,” or, conversely, “only people like me, as I kinda think there is nobody else.”

The first is generally used in social critiques, and conversations about conversations, of the sort:

“We call it _______ when _______ but when ______ we call it _______.”

This is married to the apophatic “nobody.”

“Nobody’s talking about ___________.”

If you’re like me you might find as many as a dozen posts in one Twitter stream talking about what purportedly nobody is talking about. It’s the non-set of the “we” that means “everybody else.”

I don’t understand this insistence on excusing oneself from the first person plural and from the human population. I am always a member of we, grammatically speaking. If I am doing something, then by definition somebody is doing it. But I’m sure I’ve lapsed into that think-piece language. I try to be aware of it and avoid it.

The other use of “we” is even more maddening, and I think I’m less likely to use it. This is the one where “we” is presumed to be everybody but is actually a quite small demographic of white, privileged people who probably have very good jobs and degrees from top tier schools. This is the “we” of magazine articles about helicopter parents and unrealized ambitions. It is the we of wanting yet more and feeling entitled to it — the woman who “sacrificed” a bigger family so she could buy a two million dollar home. Demographically I am sort of there — white, middle-aged, well-educated. But private preschools are not my concern; making do is. I am noncoastal. I am broke. My college degree is from a public university that doesn’t compete academically or athletically on a national stage.

I’m reminded, in these cases, of an overheard conversation between a knee-weakeningly gorgeous girl who sat behind me in chemistry class and said, to a friend, that “everybody” was at a particular party that weekend that obviously I was not at and knew nothing about.

I don’t write thinkpieces, but my mind is pretty much a 24/7 monotone of metacriticial noise. When I do venture to say a nonfictiony thing and make an observation, I try to keep out uses of “we” that doesn’t include me, or vaguely insinuates that everybody is in the same boat. The strongest writing I’ve seen is personal and openly autobiographical, it takes ownership of personal experience and presumes nothing about the reader. I think it makes you vulnerable, as a writer, to abandon the we, to stop blurring yourself into the background. It makes you take more ownership for your declarations, to be honest, to admit the limitations of your experience, perhaps even be embarrassed by your privilege.


2 thoughts on “Abuses of the First Person Plural

  1. Touché. I hide behind WE (=me and some people I know) to diffuse or share ownership. Kvetchers love company just as much as misery does. I’ll try to pay attention.

  2. This reminds me of the irritation I sometimes feel when someone claims to feel shame as a criticism of the behavior of others.

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