A lot of the time we are not all in this together
Who is the ‘we’ that is invoked in lifestyle, entertainment and opinion pieces?
The Lone Ranger and Tonto in happier times
In an old Mad magazine joke from the 1950s, the Lone Ranger and Tonto are riding through a deep ravine when they suddenly find themselves ambushed from all sides by hundreds of heavily-armed Indians. “Well, Tonto old friend, looks like we’re surrounded,” the Lone Ranger says to his faithful companion, who curtly replies, “What do you mean ‘we’, paleface?”
The gag often comes to mind when objections are raised about the use of the first person plural pronoun by journalists. Last week, for example, a letter to this newspaper took exception to the suggestion, in a review of the documentary Framing Britney Spears, that “we were the ones who leered at Britney... It was we who delighted in the stories of her impoverished upbringing as a Bible Belt ‘hick’... and who couldn’t get enough of her breakdowns, her head-shaving, her disastrous personal life.”
“I, for one, have never leered at the lady in question,” wrote the indignant letter-writer. “In fact, I have no interest in her at all. Nor does anybody I associate with. I do wish people in the media would stop using the term ‘we’ every time they make a pronouncement from on high.”
Quite. To be fair to our critic, he was making a valid point about the complicity of the audience in the worst excesses of mass popular culture, but the completely valid response illustrated perfectly the danger attendant on the use of the first person plural in public discourse: it can and will be read as presumptuous arrogance or blinkered groupthink.
Within journalism, more concern is usually expressed about the dangers of the first person singular pronoun than the plural. Successive generations of curmudgeons proclaimed, despite evidence to the contrary, that “there’s no ‘I’ in journalism”. But, apart from the hard news pages, that war was lost a long time ago, first to the New Journalism of the 1960s, which shoehorned the writer into the middle of every story, and then to a still-flowing deluge of personality-driven confessional columnists and commentators.
Class, age, wealth, culture, gender, geography and much else mean that our interests do not coincide, or that they may be directly at odds with each other
But “we” is arguably even more pernicious than “I” as a mode of discourse. For one thing, as the Lone Ranger discovered, it is based on an assumption that can easily be disproved, which is always unwise. For another, it feeds into some of the most negative perceptions of a media which talks to itself in order to decide what the nation thinks.
The phenomenon manifests itself in a number of distinct variants. The most trivial, but most teeth-grindingly irritating, can be found in lifestyle and entertainment sections, where readers are informed that “we” are so excited about trying out the latest restaurant/skin cream/gin, how much “we” are loving the new album from such-and-such, and how much “we” are looking forward to next week’s boutique festival (when such things existed). Intentionally or not, a hellish picture is painted of a gaggle of cloned airheads living off freebies and guest lists (you can decide for yourself how accurate this might be).
The second, as seen in that Britney Spears review, is the reproachful “we”. Yes, we know these politicians are dreadful, it says, but who elected them? We did. This strategy has its uses, but runs the risk of enraging some readers more than is strictly desirable. Its apotheosis came not from a journalistic source, but from the late Brian Lenihan jnr, whose post-crash assertion that “we all partied” roused the loudest “Oh, no we didn’t” response in the history of panto.
But the most widespread and insidious deployment of “we” is to be found every day in the opinion pages and editorials of newspapers – and Irish newspapers in particular (you see far less of it among our neighbours the UK). It implicitly assumes a national “we”, embarked for good or ill on a single project based largely on the same values. This “we” is deemed to have a shared set of aspirations, strengths and weaknesses, presumably reflecting the fact that this is still a small, relatively homogenous country.
Deliberately or not, this usage serves to obscure the reality that a lot of the time we’re not all in this together. Class, age, wealth, culture, gender, geography and much else mean that our interests do not coincide, or that they may be directly at odds with each other. That’s not to say that shared values and national objectives do not exist; in the current health crisis, for example, they clearly do. But there is a smugness to the Irish journalistic “we” that’s rooted in a Lone Ranger-esque set of assumptions rooted in privilege and power.
I’m sure we can all agree that’s not a good thing.