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March 01, 2006

the hortatory "we"

"We must stop the obesity epidemic." "We need to tap the energies and talents of young people." "We have to defeat these incumbents." ... Those are exhortations aimed at an unspecified "we." They are very common in politics and political commentary. But I am increasingly impatient with that rhetorical style. It begs the critical questions: Who has a reason to, or an interest in, making the proposed change? How are such people organized? What assets do they have? What strategies or incentives would make them act in favor of the recommendation?

Here's a paradox: We need to drop the hortatory "we" and start thinking more strategically.

Posted by peterlevine at March 1, 2006 08:13 AM


Are you going to address your critical questions further--perhaps with examples or case studies?

Posted by: dcrussell [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 1, 2006 05:56 PM

From Tom Hilde via email:

I've thought about this too, especially since one of my most influential undergrad professors used the "we" and Richard Rorty was criticized for his liberal (and catholic) use of "we." Feminists have criticized the regal "we" for subsuming particular positions and perspectives under a dominant one assuming itself as universal. The questions "whose position?" "whose ethics?" "whose science?" etc. thus play a large role in at least 1990s feminist thought. Rorty has been slammed for doing his "we pragmatists" bit and then assuming things about Dewey in particular that old-guard pragmatists view as simply wrong. Also, his "we liberals," as in all of us in the West. And I wonder about the use of "we" regarding questions of human nature, since I don't think HN is reducible to some simple set of assumptions. And as a rhetorical device in arguments, it can conceal assumptions that require the light of day.

Nonetheless, I kind of like the "we." It suggests solidarity - or a call to solidarity - on political and moral issues. If done right, it can be an invitation to examine a given perspective or position, to see if one actually does share it. I use it in teaching for emphasis, acknowledging to my students and to myself that it may set up a conflict that students (and I) then have to think our way out of or turn into something more convincing than simply the hortatory.

The problem, I think, comes less from the "we" and more from what follows it, as in the examples you provide. I'm also extremely tired of normative policy claims that suggest "we need to do X." These claims may be based in sound arguments and solid deliberative intelligence, but they're wholly inadequate as policy devices. They're also very common; for instance, among environmental ethics/policy circles. However, it seems to me that this stems from the very language of policy as practiced - in particular, the policy-world - and its insistence on already owning the normative claims underlying the hortatory "we" in the form of extant methods of analysis, measurement, packaging, marketing, and sales. There's nothing new about this claim. But I'd encourage looking at what is attached to "we"-claims and why they often fail as much as what is subsumed under the hortatory "we."

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 2, 2006 07:12 AM

An example for "dcrussell": I believe that "we" should do a better job preparing young people for active and competent democratic citizenship. In fact, I am paid to promote that goal. But I think there are reasons that educational institutions do not emphasize civic education, even though polls show public support for it. It's necessary to analyze those reasons and figure out a strategy for overcoming them. Is it worth trying to increase public commiment to civic education? What would be the best method for doing that? Or should my colleagues and I use a less direct strategy (such as showing that civic education increases reading scores--as I suspect it does)?

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 2, 2006 07:18 AM

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