2014-02-03

Who Is "We?"

Part One:
A few days ago, I alluded to a forthcoming post on use of the word "we." It's time to deliver the goods, but before I do, let's quickly recap what said about "we" in that post:
[A]ttaching negative consequences to unacceptable childhood behavior is called discipline. It is concrete, specific, and enforceable. But simply declaring something to be "not okay" and frowning furtively at a child (or an adult, please note) is synonymous with the act of declaring an action to be socially frowned-upon. The point is that those children (or adults) who engage in that behavior should be ashamed of themselves. It's shamey. But there isn't any specificreason why people who say "not okay" are saying what they're saying. The best you'll ever get from them is "we don't do that." It's an act of shaming someone by attaching social unanimity to whatever the speaker has deemed to be "not okay."
Part Two:
A friend of mine once invited several friends on vacation, myself being one of them. I knew many, but not everyone, who went. Among the attendees was a sizable group of young people, an insular group of friends who spent a lot of time together. We all got a good deal on accommodations as a result of a group rate, which was the logic in my friend's inviting so many people. Best of all, no one was "on the hook" to spend a lot of time together, so there were many small off-shoot groups that hung out as desired.

One morning, many of us met in the hotel lobby to discuss plans for the rest of the day. As I was waiting for the member of my own off-shoot group to arrive, I watched the people in the insular group discuss their plans. One young woman, Renee (all names changed to protect the innocent), had a strong desire to do something specific. I don't remember what it was exactly, but let's say it was hiking.

She made her first attempt at suggesting the hike by saying to Steve and Michelle, "I think we should go hiking!" Her friends seemed unsure. They answered, "Well... let's wait for Jane to get here before we decide."

When Jane arrived, Renee made her second attempt. She walked up to Jane and said, "We're going to go hiking. Do you want to come with us?"

Jane wasn't sure, either. She replied, "Hmm... Well, who is 'we'?"

To this, Renee responded, "Steve, Michelle, and I."

Still, Jane wasn't convinced. She said, "I'll go if Ursula is going."

So, Renee waited for Ursula to arrive, then walked up to her and made her third attempt at suggesting the hike: "We're all going hiking. Do you want to come hiking with us?"

Ursula was surprised. "We are? Is that what Jane said?" Renee confirmed, so Ursula said, uneasily, "Well, okay... if everyone else is going hiking, I'll go hiking, too."

Part Three:
Notice how self-aware Renee was as she deceived the others. She didn't begin by saying that she wanted to hiking, she began by suggesting that they should all go hiking. When she was unable to convince the others, rather than comply with their wishes that they all discuss it as a group, Renee waited for the next group member to arrive and then announced that she and the others were definitely going hiking, and did Jane want to come, too? Jane only wanted to go if Ursula also wanted to go, but Renee told Ursula that Jane had already confirmed. Thus, as far as Ursula knew, everyone had already decided to go hiking.

The group went hiking, despite the fact that Renee hadn't managed to convince anyone to go hiking. Only Renee wanted to hike. But she deceived the others into thinking that a group decision had been reached, and thus manipulated a rather large group of friends into doing what really only Renee wanted to do.

Interesting, right?

Part Four:
It happened again, not to long ago. This time, I was the purported victim; but of course these sorts of strategies have no effect on strong individualists like myself.

I found myself among a small group of friends, on our way to have some fun. As we walked, one of us decided that he would rather do X than our intended Y. After fruitlessly suggesting to the group that we all do Y instead of X, he tried a different approach. He approached me and said, "We're going to do X."

I said, "We are? Who is 'we'?"

He didn't reply, he just smiled. Another member of the group confirmed that "we" was really "he," so I made a point of acknowledging that fact: "Oh, you would rather do X than Y. Okay, that's fine with me. We don't have to do Y, if you don't want to."

This caused a mini-group melt-down because the matter had been re-framed as a group discussion rather than a group conclusion. We spent the next ten minutes discussing what to do next. In the end, we decided to do neither X nor Y, but rather Z, and everyone seemed satisfied with that decision.

Part Five:
Absent the word "we," the English language would have severe limitations. But in the wrong hands, "we" can be highly manipulative. It's okay to act on behalf of a group, if you so choose. It's okay to want to make a group of friends happy. But it's important to keep in mind that many of the people who inform you as to what "we" want to do are really just talking about their own personal desires.

Watch closely, and you will soon see that many people have a knack for using the language of collectivism to bend individuals to their own ambitions. When people talk about the horrors of collectivism, this is what they're really talking about. It's not as if Ayn Rand truly believed that it was always evil whenever human beings acted collectively. Rather, Rand recognized the important insight that much of what people talk about when they say "we" is really nothing more than using the word "we" deceptively, in order to shame people into submission or appeal to their sense of altruism to extract benefits that would not be worth doling out if the truth were otherwise known.

It's not that collectivism is bad, it's that deception is bad, and particularly pernicious when some of us choose to abuse the word "we."