I am greatly disturbed when I hear people using the words “we” and “us” to refer to our government. Indeed, I am so disturbed that generally I can’t hear anything else they say after that; I am too distracted. Their usage both reveals and perpetuates an attitude of passivity, helplessness, and nonresistance. It suggests that you and I are not capable of action or thought on our own — that our identities and our will are wholly swallowed up by a handful of plutocrats in Washington. Perpetuating that attitude is a huge mistake. We need to make a conceptual distinction between “me” and “my government,” and that distinction begins with our choice of words. Changing our linguistic habits takes time and effort, but this is not a trivial matter — this stuff is extremely important.
We have been doing terrible things. For instance, Americans have been overthrowing democracies in America, and Americans have been doing nothing to stop it. We need to bring it more to our attention, and make Americans more aware, of the terrible things that we have been doing, so that together we can launch a united effort to stop ourselves from doing those terrible things.
The US government has been doing terrible things. For instance, it has been overthrowing democracies in many countries in Latin America, and US citizens have been doing nothing to stop it. We activists need to bring it more to the attention of the general public, and make USers more aware, of the terrible things being done by the the US government, so that together we citizens can launch a united effort to stop the government from doing those terrible things.
The biggest counter-argument I get about this involves paying taxes. If “we” pay taxes, then aren’t “we” complicit in all the government’s terrible crimes? I like to answer by talking about the Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France. The members of the Resistance paid their taxes to the Nazi-controlled government, because they felt they could resist more effectively from outside of prison than from inside it. But when the members of the Resistance were talking among themselves, they did not say “we are rounding up the Jews.” Which side are you on?
Perhaps this analogy makes the point clearer. Imagine that someone from the mafia knocks on your door, and tells you that from now on you must pay them a certain amount, or they will break both your legs and kill your son. And imagine that you live in a neighborhood where the police aren’t very helpful about protecting you from the mafia. So it would be understandable if you start paying the mafia regularly. Still, I don’t think you will use the word “we” when referring to the mafia’s activities — e.g., you won’t say to your spouse, “hey, did you hear about the new whorehouse we opened at the other end of town last week?”
Language is not just a neutral carrier of information. It affects how we think. Here is another example of that: In Orwell’s novel “1984” (published in 1949), the totalitarian government’s military branch was called the Ministry of Peace (or MinPax, for short). Shortly after that novel was published, the US Department of War was renamed as the Department of “Defense,” to make it easier for USers to believe that their soldiers were always “the good guys” in all of the many wars that the USA started. It has been a very effective tactic. But I’m trying to get into the habit of using the term “Department of War,” or at least writing the word “Defense” in quotes.
Also, I try to avoid using the word “terrorist” altogether. I don’t think it can be used meaningfully (except in discussions of vocabulary such as this one). Who decides which are the “terrorists” and which are the “freedom fighters”? If you look at the USA’s allies and its enemies, there isn’t much difference in their tactics, except that the USA’s allies use bombs that are imprinted “made in USA.” Martin Luther King Jr called the USA “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” and it was true when he said it, and it’s still true.
It takes a lot of time and practice to change your use of words like “we” and “defense” and “terrorist.” But it has a big impact on how we think, so it’s worth doing. Please choose your words carefully.
2016 Sept 11, version 1.11.