The Disloyal We: Pronouns, Self-Exemption and Psychology Today

The Disloyal We: Pronouns, Self-Exemption and Psychology Today

Posted Nov 16, 2011

We read for insight, the same reason we gossip and watch comedies about the clueless and dramas about the evil. Certainly there are other reasons, but insight is primary.

We drop down onto this planet with scant instruction on how to live. We look for clues where we can find them, through experience in the school of hard knocks certainly, but also through distilled, condensed experience-stories whether true, exaggerated, or fictional-all of which are invitations to insight.

We welcome invitations to insight, but we don't like insight imposed. We want our insights to be elective, optional for us to apply to ourselves as they might or might not pertain to us. Two and a half millennia ago, Aesop provided insights to a king delicately through fables. He didn't blurt "King, you know what you need to do? Let me tell you what you should do."

There are times when we've wanted the insights imposed. We went to EST or Landmark, we phoned in to have Dr. Laura scold us on nationally syndicated radio, we let our priest boss us around, we read spiritual and self-help books that said "Here's what's wrong with you and here's what you need to do." I spent a fair amount of time in Encounter Groups at Esalen in the 1970s, with people really up in your face.

Mostly we expect more autonomy than that, especially these days. These days Esalen is gentler, more yoga and Tai Chi; less encounter. A lot of the draw toward self-confronting self-help books has shifted toward the kinds of books Malcolm Gladwell writes, books that are about the psychology of people, not about you, books whose insights into human foibles you could, but don't have to apply to yourself.

We authors have a few choices about how directly to talk to you readers. A lot rides on the pronouns we use.

Some of my most popular articles have begun by talking about "them," "those other people" and the clueless things they do. I can get you to sit close to me if I gossip and joke about the clueless, present company excepted.

A little closer to home I can write all-inclusively about "we," or "people in general" as in, "we have a tendency to get into petty fights." But with a pronoun so softly encompassing, you and I can still opt out of the insight. "Yes," we might sigh, "isn't that the way of it with people?" without really including ourselves, feigned loyalty to our race, while secretly, smugly exempting ourselves as exceptional.

"One" works similarly. "One shouldn't be mean," is a safe insight, an insight one need not apply to oneself. Still, both "one" and "we" are closer to home than "those people out there."

Still, there are reasons for us to be more firmly inclusive than that. If I had to pinpoint humanity's Achilles' heel, I would say it's yours and my natural propensity toward double standards, thinking it's OK for us to do what we wouldn't allow others in our situation to do. This includes extended double standards, tribal exceptionalism that frees you or me to say, "Don't think me unfair for thinking I deserve more than you; I think my fellow tribesman deserves more than you too." Gossiping about the folly of "them" or even "we" or "one" does little to constrain yours and my tendencies toward double standards.

My favorite quote ever is Piet Hein who said:

Philosophers find their true perfection
Knowing the follies of humankind by introspection.

Along the same lines is Samuel Johnson, "The size of a man's understanding might always be know by his mirth."

Mirth, I'd say at the follies of us, and yes I pointedly mean of you and of me. We are not exempt. It's a question of laughing with not at, the folly of humankind, but also of not pretending to laugh with others at the folly of us all, when we're really laughing at others.

A better tomorrow is not possible without constraints on yours and my natural double standards. To name them is to tame them. Constraint on double standards can only be had if we can spot them. Among our double standards is a double standard about double standards, whereby you and I are much quicker to spot other people's double standards than our own. So though we might start to name and tame double standards by seeing them in others, we can't end there. Eventually you and I must name and tame yours and my double standards too.

I don't see how any of us can be brave enough to look at our own double standards squarely without the benefit of mirth. If every time I notice my double standards, I just wince, I'll stop noticing it. If instead, every time I notice, I laugh, not at me but with me, and not with me diplomatically either, in that mock ,self-deprecating, yet self-absolving, double-standard preserving way mine, but laughing while admitting it's a problem, then maybe I can keep noticing long enough to constrain my double standards.

It's not enough to embrace your shadow. You must also laugh at it and be repulsed by it enough to do something about it. All of that is optional if you don't read "you" mirthfully, deeply, painfully, in the folly of us.