I must interrupt these regular broadcasting for an important announcement and apology to my readers. Recently I have been re-reading Christopher Hitchens (I use this word far too often) essential and wonderful book letters to a young contrarian. Going at one chapter a day, every day as I first wake up(a better jump-starter has yet to be discovered in my experience), it has been marvelous to be reminded what it takes to be a true dissenter as well as an opportunity to regularly challenge myself to see if I still follow the course of my own path.
This morning as I was reading my chapter I came to the end and was terribly shocked when I came to this passage:
P.S. A note on language. Be even more suspicious than I was just telling you to be, of all those who employ the term “we” or “us” without your permission. This is another form of surreptitious conscription, designed to suggest that “we” are all agreed on “our” interests and identity. Populist authoritarians try to slip it past you; so do some kinds of literary critics (“our sensibilities are engaged) Always ask who this “we” is; as often as not it’s an attempt to smuggle tribalism through the customs […]* Joseph Heller knew how the need to belong, and the need for security, can make people accept lethal and stupid conditions, and then act as if they had imposed them on themselves.
Shocked is too pale an adjective for my reaction to these words. Mortified is more appropriate. For the past month I have posting these essays, an attempt to legitimize literature and demonstrate its social relevance to society while warning of the dangers of conformity and authoritarian control. Yet it appears I’ve been employing a ridiculous and base rhetorical device. The word “we, our, and us” now echo through each of these essays calling you the readers into a club of thought that you might not even want into and calling myself to a label of mediocrity that is humiliating and yet rewarding for the wisdom it awards me.
The role of my work has been to encourage individual thought, not conscription into one frame of mind. My reader can freely accept or reject my writings at any time, as is their sanction. In short I apologize to my readers if it appears that I have given them no other option but to believe the sum total of my writing.
I do not mean to sound sycophantic to Mr. Hitchens as I write this, however as I have admitted time and again to be an admirer of the man, if it should emerge that I have missed such an obvious tenant I would have the proverbial “egg on my face.” Totalitarianism demands and insists upon the collected “we” and “us” in order for an individual-void society to flourish and blossom into its own. (Any who have the stomach for such thick material should consider Ayn Rand’s most bearable text Anthem to see the full effect that pronouns can place over psychology).
If a writer has made a mistake they should and must atone for it, lest it become a weakness that dogs their career and drains their voice of sincerity. I have a made a mistake and it is likely one that I shall continue to make in the future. If I should employ the “we” again, understand that is meant only to mean those that have read the text or are willing to participate in this momentary discussion. It does not dictate alliance to my academic philosophy and penchant. (On a brief note I find it fascinating how literature develops a sensitivity to words, simply writing the word alliance sends a chill down my spine and a sour taste in my mouth).
Totalitarianism is not a distant threat known only to those unfortunate enough to be born in the Middle East. Dictatorship has emerged in our lifetime as both a physical and psychological state; therefore those of us that possess liberty must be constantly on guard lest such influence begin to infect us. Some may feel that my shock and disgrace is simply an over-reaction, but all it takes is a single laps to dictate further behavior. How often have I employed “we” or “us” (and not just in the previous sentences of this paragraph) in these essays, automatically assuming that any casual reader may arrive at the same conclusions? That assumption of will is an impulse to manipulate and control another’s psychological state and bring them over to my line of thinking. In short I have been an ass.
Like Mr. Hitchens, and many writers before him, the purpose of writing is to generate independent will, and in my next essay I will discuss the importance of that will as demonstrated through two brilliant texts: The Stranger by Albert Camus and Batman: Year One by Frank Miller. I will continue to defend literature as a viable and important institution, necessary to sustain and encourage healthy development in human beings. For this I will never apologize. What I will account for is making the assumption that you automatically agree with me and that my will is unalterable, for that is the root of all dictatorship.
Thank you again as always Mr. Hitchens for reminding me that sometimes the greatest jeopardy to the ethos is our own mistakes. See, I made it again.
We now return to our regularly scheduled program, or, if you prefer allusions to brilliantly written and produced British comedies: “And now for something completely different.”
The […] indicate continued text that have been carefully excised from the above quote due to their lack of direction for the argument. The material I did not include is a small tangent on Hitchens part to demonstrate the use of the “us” as a conscriptive tool, as opposed to a rhetorical aid. However, ff you should desire to know what it is(reading good writing is its own reward and keeping authors accountable is deliciously fun) that I have removed, go to the last two pages of chapter XIV (fourteen for those uneducated with roman numerals, don’t feel bad if you are I usually don’t make it past fifty myself) and you will find this wonderful quote at the end.