Uses and abuses of an ambiguous pronoun
The tenth anniversary of 9/11 brought with it a surge in the use of the first person plural. While most would agree that this tragic, history-changing event must be memorialized, I know I’m not the only one made uncomfortable by the ready invocation of this public We. It seems at once abstract and presumptuous, and it plays to a dangerous human desire: to become part of a crowd, and to define oneself against Them. Does this “we” have any real antecedent for an unbounded, diverse populace? Does it claim to speak for me? Whatever the founders may have meant by “we, the people,” it rings hollow in the arena of contemporary politics and popular journalism. With Tonto, I want to ask: “What do you mean ‘we,’ kemosabe?”
The first person plural is an indexical pronoun, dependent on context for meaning, but the boundaries are often unclear even to the speaker. And there’s something not only ambiguous but also incoherent in the pronoun.