The ambiguous border of “we”

Don't talk him. We'll talk to him and the team later.

From a recent telephone conversation

I misunderstood the sentence above. I'd been working long days. I was in a crowded restuarant. I'd had a beer or two. So it's not surprising there was a misunderstanding.

But the sentence also contains a fundamental ambiguity, which became apparent when the "talk with him and the team" actually happened. That talk didn't include me. I had assumed it would. The speaker, however, meant something different when they said “we”.

Linguists refer to this disctinction as clusivity:

...clusivity is a grammatical distinction between inclusive and exclusive first-person pronouns and verbal morphology, also called inclusive “we” and exclusive “we”. Inclusive “we” specifically includes the addressee (that is, one of the words for “we” means “you and I and possibly others”), while exclusive “we” specifically excludes the addressee (that is, another word for “we” means “he/she/they and I, but not you’), regardless of who else may be involved.

I'd assumed an inclusive “we”, when an exclusive “we” was intended.

Although lingustically clusivity pertains specifically to the person being addressed, the borders of “we” often tend to be broader than that. For instance, the borders of “we” would have changed depending on who was listening to Churchill's famous "We shall fight on the beaches speech":

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender

“We” here includes the British, who will defend their island. It excludes the Axis power (and much of the rest of the world). It seems simultaneously include and exclude the rest of the Allies, who would be fighting, but it was most certainly not their island.

I imagine a spectrum of inclusion from the royal we to a hypothetical universal “we” that includes everyone and everything. I would love to call this universal “we” the “star-stuff weÆ after Carl Sagan's observation:

Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star. All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff.

But even Sagan's marvelous statement, which includes all inhabitants of then Earth, still excludes any sentient life-forms could potentially living beyond the Earth.

What really fascinates me is that the border of are fluid and can change over time. It can expand and contract. The best example I can think of is:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It is clear that this exludes those outside of the United States, but at the time it was written, it also exlcluded slaves, women and anyone who didn't own land. It could also exclude those who came to America to find their Gold Mountain. Over time, the borders of the “we” in U.S. Constitution have expanded. The ambiguity of “we” may have helped along the way. There is a history of excluded groups explicitly arguing that they should be a part of the Constitutional “we”. Here, for instance, is Susan B. Anthony addressing Women’s Rights To The Suffrage:

It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people – women as well as men. And it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government – the ballot.

Barack Obama began his 2008 speech on Race with “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union,” and went on to say:

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

It makes me wonder if the use of “we” was deliberately ambiguous in order to leave space for an expansion that the framers of the Constitution were unwilling or unable to acheive. Of course, this expansion is not guaranteed, and there are those who are currently seeking to contract and close off the borders of "We the people".

Though it is frustrating and often horrifying to find yourself outside the border of a “we”, the ambiguity of that border can be a benefit. It ambiguity allows for changing the border over time, for expanding it to others. There is no doubt that there is a need for vigilance. That as a “we” expands to be on the look out for those who would like to permanently close off the border.

All of this goes to remind me to pay attention when I'm talking a day to day basis. When I say “we”, who is in. and who is out? There is a lot of talk about moving from "I" leadership to “we” leadership. It's an idea that I definitely subscribe to, but it's worth being mindful of excactly who is being excluded and included in “we”.

Queries permalink

  • Is there an example of a truly universal/star-stuff “we”?
  • Some languages have specific inclusive and exclusive forms of the third person plural pronoun. Does the the exlusive form mean a sort of closed border, or is there a fluidity and flexibity there, too?