Skip to main content

Blues for the "we"


I’m a great believer in the impersonal “one”, and the editorial “we”. What the linguists call an agent defocuser. However, as an editor of academic papers, I have found that neither “one” nor the editorial “we” is in favour at the moment. It is the age of “I” or the passive verb. The former I often find intrusive, and the latter cowardly.

However, you can’t be American and to the manner born without knowing, in your bones, that “one” is a hopelessly upper class agent defocuser. To say: One doesn’t do such things, is to mark oneself as the type of person who either goes to the Yale Club or wants to go to the Yale Club.

I wonder why this class aura hangs around the “one”? And why it has so little oral usage – in the oral, one becomes, oh so fatally, you. In Benjamin’s essay, the Storyteller, the oral nature of the story, as opposed to the novel, has to do with the space of its performance. The storyteller in the village is face to face with the audience, within touching distance. And that touching distance shines out in the American “you”. There are novels written in the “you” form, and they seem somehow to be wearing the wrong clothes – for the “you” is a barroom bark, and perhaps should be paired with the “one” as bluecollar to blue blood. Myself, I like to think of myself as a blue collar upstart, an imposter of sorts, and perhaps this is the reason I am so fond of “one”. But I am also fond of “we” as an editorial gesture. But there is “we” and there is “we”.  The “we” that makes me cringe doesn’t reference the text that both writer and supposed reader are inhabiting, but a social space. In that bastard form of prose, the newspaper column, the we bleeds all over the place. The we goes to fancy restaurants, worries about sending the kids to prep school, and observes the other – which might even have its own “we”! – as going to diners, beating the kids, and voting for Trump.

I am going to lose the fight for the editorial “we”, a less snobby and more inclusive doll. One knows this. But one tries, nonetheless.