Politica: The royal "we"–who speaks through me?


Whether or not Queen Alexandrina Victoria (a.k.a. Empress of India) of the House of Hanover ever uttered the phrase, "We are not amused," we are all familiar with incidents where someone utters what we consider to be the "royal we." You don't have to occupy a high and mighty office nor be a lowly politician to assume to speak for others, for a collective that you may in fact represent, simply wish you did, or do not but need to bolster your opinion with an invisible constituency.

Perhaps it is just the US American part of me, but I can attest to being annoyed from childhood on by what often feels like passive aggression in the use of the royal we. Either I feel like I am being lectured to by an anonymous but threatening presence, or if the "we" insinuates that I am part of it, I often feel like I did not ask to be included.

Some years ago, we went through a phase where assertiveness training was all the rage and we were taught to speak per "I", to augment our effectiveness and clarity, particularly where it was important to influence someone. "We" was a criminal offense in this scheme of things, where it felt like hiding behind a crowd. Today, with identity politics peaking as it has not done in recent years, "we" attempts to establish collective identity as a force to be reckoned with, implying even violent repercussions.

From an intercultural perspective, we have long struggled with the inadequacy of the dimensions described as "individualistic vs. collective", and often, not realizing that individualists as such form a collective, we try to ignore that those cultures or groups, described as individualist, all too frequently follow a herd instinct or lemming impulse. 

Enunciating "we" reflects an effort to create something, a social construction that we hope will take on the force of reality. It is, in other words, a political act that begs the collaboration of those collected under it. Inclusivity and exclusivity appear simultaneously in the utterance of "we."

What concerns me is that "we" often marches dialogue to the guillotine. While there is no question that certain have been classified into groups and discriminated against, and require solidarity to rectify injustices perpetrated against them, I sometimes wonder if this identity closure, when persistent, does not collaborate with, perpetuate bias and exclusion. If I take the position that you can never understand me, whatever my issue, the possibility of dialogue is decapitated, and the alternatives are ultimately isolation or escalating conflict. Of course, no one can fully understand anyone else, but this is not cause for rejection but an ever-stronger reason for sorting out what communalities and aspirations we do have that can connect us in ever larger "we’s" that will reduce conflict and nurture humanity.

We more easily agree on abstracts than we do on particularities, but we can be at best a starting point for exploring the concrete experience lying beneath the abstraction. This is why sharing stories that have led us to be who we are becomes our effective means of establishing the empathy that is likely to be missing in abstract principles no matter how moral they sound.

Image: http://www.terriwindling.com/blog/2013/03/happy-birthday-queen-victoria.html  

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