Who are they, and who are we? (2)

by Terence MacNamee

To return to last week’s topic: saying “we” it is not as simple a matter as it once was. It has become quite tricky in fact. When we read that “we won the war” or “we are the world champions”, the pronoun is supposed to include the writer and the reader, but does it? When someone writes “we”, they are presuming to speak on behalf of society or the nation, and the readers are assumed to accept being spoken for. Yet in modern Western society individuals are supposed to have become very independent: they belong to social groups and categories and even relationships out of personal choice, not out of duty or destiny. They may be your friend today, but not tomorrow, and that is entirely their decision.

So, going back to last week’s discussion, when former ambassador David Mulroney says “we need to get to know China”, who is “we”? The question has probably never occurred to him. He would say “we” means Canadians. Yet clearly, as I pointed out, it does not include Chinese-Canadians. It refers more likely to the WASP establishment to which the speaker belongs. He goes on to talk about “a country that is almost wholly unlike us”. Who is “us”? Again his fellow-WASPs, or at least persons of European origin, are implied.

“Are we a North American country, or are we a Pacific country, or are we both?“ asked a Canadian commentator on Mulroney’s recent book. Good question, but it all depends on who “we” are, doesn’t it? If you are one of the English-Canadian majority, then “we” are a North American country. If you live on the West Coast, maybe “we” are a Pacific country too. Furthermore, when Canadian writers in English say “we” and talk about Canada, they almost always mean English Canada; French Canada is conveniently ignored.

Coming around to myself, how can I presume to say “we”, when I am precariously balanced between three countries, two continents, and several languages? And how can I presume to include you, when I do not know who you are? That you can read a text in English doesn’t tell me anything about you at all. You could be anywhere in the world, belonging to almost any culture.

Commenting on French philosopher Vincent Descombes’ recent book Les embarras de l’identité (Gallimard, 2013), Mathieu Bélisle in Le Devoir (Montréal) asks if we can still say “we“ at all. He dutifully reminds the reader that, since the last war, liberal democracy has not done badly in building a social consensus in the Western world. But I would want to add that the existing consensus does not need to last. In fact, it is being eaten away by resurgence of demands for group identity, but even more so by the atomization of society.

I have talked before about Karl Popper’s “abstract society”. This is an imaginary society in which people have no personal contact with each other. It was just a thought experiment when Popper coined the idea (around 1950), but in the world of computer communication it is entirely conceivable. Popper thought it would never really happen. Now I am not so sure. The abstract society could be seen as a society in which there is no “we” left. Surely that is the ultimate nightmare.

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