Some languages have a different word – or different verbal morphology – for a ‘we’ that means “me and some other people, but not you” and one that means “me and you (and, perhaps, some other people.” Linguists call this distinction clusivity: the first kind of ‘we’ is inclusive, the latter exclusive.
For English speakers, on the other hand, this distinction is purely pragmatic. We can often infer it, but it’s not marked directly in our grammar. This ambiguity has rhetorical advantages: in English, the first-person plural “is sometimes used … in a way that furtively excludes, often revealing … implicit biases.”
Politicians, in particular, seem to rely on this ambiguity. Their ‘we’ sounds, at first glance, like it refers to all of us. But it so rarely does.
On September 3rd, in a speech that used the phrase “our economy” eleven times, US President Joe Biden announced,
Our economy grew the first half of this year at the fastest rate in about 40 years. We’re the only developed country in the world — I’ll say that again — we’re the only developed country in the world whose economy is now bigger than it was before the pandemic.
But who is this ‘we’?
Does it include the 10 million Americans who are losing unemployment benefits or seeing them shrink today, Labor Day, a holiday that ostensibly celebrates the American worker? Is their economy bigger and better than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic?
What about the 15 million Americans at risk of losing their homes?
The 650,000 who have died, officially, of COVID-19 — as many Americans as died in the 1918 flu pandemic? And the hundreds of thousands more whose deaths were not counted and thus did not count? (To count: to quantify, to matter.)
Last week my city broke its all-time 1-hour and 24-hour rainfall records. Those records were set three weeks earlier.
My life is infinitely poorer because of the millions of people I’ll never have a chance to meet because they died of COVID-19.
I’m still too angry to end this essay tidily.
We – and I do mean all of us – need collective and structural changes. We need them badly. We need them yesterday. We need them if we have any hopes of addressing climate change, ending the pandemic, or reversing the massive inequality lurking just under the surface of ‘our’ economy.