Tuesday, September 28, 2010

We, as a society...

When people say "we, as a society", who do they mean?

This is a common enough phrase in political debate, but at best a vague one, at worst dishonest. See this speech by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin last week:

The deeper question is then is why in the better-times-Ireland, as a society and as an economic model, we all underestimated the fact that the success of an economic model ought also to have been evaluated in terms of the long term sustainability of jobs, mortgages and borrowing, of life style, of education and health care and sustainable opportunity for young people. Such long term sustainability needs broad ownership by all in society.

Who is the "we" that Martin refers to? He says "we all underestimated", so does he mean literally everyone, every single citizen? Probably not, he follows this statement with the remark that during the 1990s he gave a talk "reflecting" on the ability of small government to manage an economic crisis. This suggests that he, at least, was aware of the importance of sustainability of jobs and so on.

If so, what he meant to say was: "I was right all along, and the rest of you should have listened to me." That would have been honest, though still inaccurate since there were plenty people warning about trouble in the global economy. Archbishop Martin was not the only worried one!

Often when people chastise some group or country "as a society", they mean to exclude themselves in the criticism.

"We, as a society, need to reject racism", means "I reject racism, and the rest of you should too. You should me more like me." It's an irritating phrase because it makes this grand generalisation about what millions of people "as a society" believe or do, while sneakily implying that the speaker is excluded from the criticism.

It also implies that other people need to change, not the speaker. Don't say that "we, as a society" need to reject racism or domestic abuse or war. Reject them all by yourself!

So next time someone insists that their country "as a society" needs to change, ask yourself who they really mean. Often enough these people imply that they are already in the right, so everyone else will have to shift direction to conform to their standards. "We, as a society" means you, not me.

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