When we write, we all share one very important tendency, one we do not notice, and one which we should feel ashamed of. This is the tendency to deploy the word “we” as a cheap method of insisting that the reader already agrees with us, without having to undergo the bothersome effort of proving that they actually do agree.
The tendency to use “we” is pervasive in contemporary nonfiction. Once you start looking for it, you’ll find it everywhere. (Once you start being irritated by it, you will spent half your life as a reader in a state of extreme irritation.) Sentences like this abound:
We have become trapped in a toxic cycle of political discourse, unable to articulate ourselves without offending one another.
We no longer know what we mean by concepts like patriotism and dissent.
How long will we continue to deny the reality of climate change?
These “we”s come very naturally. They feel right. They suit the style of writing. The above sentences do not seem especially objectionable.
But they are objectionable, at least if they are written casually and without consideration. The problem here is that it’s unclear who “we” are. I’m a reader, and I don’t deny the reality of climate change. I know what I mean by patriotism and dissent. I’m not trapped in whatever toxic discourse cycle you’re talking about. You may suffer from all of these problems, but leave me out of it!
“We” suffers from a similar problem as the use of the passive voice. It allows the writer or speaker to evade the question of who they are actually talking about. And it’s often lazy, because it attempts to force the reader into the “we” camp without actually undertaking the effort of showing why they belong there.
I used to think that the “we” problem was so obvious that everyone knew about it, and that it was needless to point out a problem that we (oh dear) are all aware of. But recently, I came across one of the worst examples of we-writing I have ever seen, in a book by Virginia Postrel. Ms. Postrel has been a columnist for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. So if the “we” problem has been addressed by style guides, the advice certainly isn’t being enforced at our major media outlets.
Here’s the passage from Postrel. She is trying to make the case that consumerism is natural rather than artificial, based on the fact that women in Afghanistan enjoy consumer products without being subjected to advertising:
What’s true for New Yorkers should be true for Afghans as well. Why buy a green burka when you’re a poor peasant and already have two blue ones? Why paint your nails red if you’re a destitute widow begging on the streets? These indulgences seem wasteful and irrational, just the sort of false needs encouraged by commercial manipulation. Yet liberated Kabul had no ubiquitous advertising or elaborate marketing campaigns. Maybe our desires for impractical decoration and meaningless fashion don’t come from Madison Avenue after all. Maybe our relation to aesthetic value is too fundamental to be explained by commercial mind control. Human beings know the world, and each other, through our senses. From our earliest moments, the look and feel of our surroundings tell us who and where we are. But as we grow, we imbibe a different lesson: that appearances are not just potentially deceiving but frivolous and unimportant—that aesthetic value is not real except in those rare instances when it transcends the quotidian to become high art. We learn to contrast surface to substance, to believe that our real selves and the real world exist beyond the superficiality of sensation. We have good cause, of course, to doubt the simple evidence of our senses. The sun does not go around the earth. Lines of the same length can look longer or shorter depending on how you place arrows on their ends. Beautiful people are not necessarily good, nor are good people necessarily beautiful. We’re wise to maintain reasonable doubts. But rejecting our sensory natures has problems of its own. When we declare that mere surface cannot possibly have legitimate value, we deny human experience and ignore human behavior. We set ourselves up to be fooled again and again, and we make ourselves a little crazy. We veer madly between overvaluing and undervaluing the importance of aesthetics. Instead of upholding rationality against mere sensuality, we tangle ourselves in contradictions.
This argument, whatever its factual value, relies on a lowdown trick in order to gloss over its weakest points. Instead of proving her case through evidence, Postrel simply throws out a bunch of “we” assertions, as if everyone knows intuitively that the observations she is making are correct. Thus there is no need to prove her premises, and as long as her conclusion follows from them, her argument will be sound.
But half of these “we” statements are highly questionable. We “believe that our real selves and the real world exist beyond the superficiality of sensation?” Do we? I certainly don’t. In fact, I don’t even know what that means. We “declare that mere surface cannot possibly have legitimate value”? I have never heard anybody declare this. Perhaps some people do this. If they do, perhaps they should be named and quoted. But we certainly don’t. Apparently, though, we “veer madly between overvaluing and undervaluing the importance of aesthetics” and make ourselves “a little crazy.” Well, Virginia Postrel may have made herself a little crazy through trying to navigate a series of contradictory abstractions about surfaces and substances. But she’s more alone in that than she thinks.
It’s interesting that Postrel should invoke madness, and say that “we’re all crazy” in a certain way. It’s as if I were to say “Of course, we all hear voices and suffer hallucinations,” or “naturally, we are all terrified of our shadows.” (The use of “of course” and “naturally” is another quick way to try to badger your reader into glossing over your flimsiest assertions.) Maybe I am right in my assumption about everybody else, and we are all out of our minds. But it’s possible that I am simply wrongly assuming that my personal delusions are widely shared.
It’s impossible to fully escape the use of the reader+myself+society “we.” I slip into it constantly myself (see above). And it has value, insofar as sometimes the writer wishes to show the reader what the writer and reader have in common, or wishes to speak about a broad group that includes herself. But because the identity of the we is so often left unspoken and assumed, the word can easily be deployed nefariously, as a way of coercing agreement from unidentified parties who may or may not actually accept the proposition. Writers and readers alike should be skeptical of we-language, even if it will never be eliminated entirely. The more “we” is purged from our speech, the better off we shall be.