First-Person Plural

When I moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1985, I’d been immersed for eight years in the feminist women-in-print movement and the local (mostly) lesbian women’s community. Before that I’d been a student activist and an organizer against the Vietnam War. If I’d learned anything in those tumultuous 16 years, it was that we is a shifty concept. When people say we or our or us, who do they mean exactly? Are they hiding I behind the illusion of great numbers? Are they overlooking significant differences in an attempt to suggest unanimity?

People in power love to talk about we as though it includes everyone. Often they assume it does include everyone: they don’t know any better because they don’t have to know any better. It took the civil rights movement to prove that the white we didn’t include black people, and the women’s liberation movement to prove that the male we didn’t include women. I’ve long been partial to the old joke about the Lone Ranger (white) and Tonto (his Indian sidekick) riding through a narrow canyon. Suddenly armed Indians appear high on the canyon walls to either side, dead ahead and not far behind. “Oh boy,” says the Lone Ranger. “Are we in trouble now.” To which Tonto says, “What you mean ‘we,’ white man?”

As a new arrival I figured out PDQ that Martha’s Vineyard was much more complicated than it looked from the outside. I wasn’t surprised: wasn’t this true of every other place I’d ever lived? The place was fascinating, often frustrating as hell, but never ever boring. I listened to my friends talk, I eavesdropped on strangers at the post office, I read the island’s two papers, the upstart new Martha’s Vineyard Times and the staid old Vineyard Gazette. I tried to explain Martha’s Vineyard to myself, but I was so newly and tentatively a part of the island’s we that I didn’ t try to explain it to the world.

Back then grand generalizations about Martha’s Vineyard were most commonly made by occasional visitors and summer people. When they made generalizations about the Vineyard they visited or the Vineyard where they had a summer house, I usually didn’t mind. What I did mind was their generalizations about the Vineyard where I lived. If they were going to make generalizations about that Vineyard, they’d better get it right — and they very rarely did. They could look right at something and not know what they were seeing.

The idea that summer Martha’s Vineyard and year-round Martha’s Vineyard are different places takes some getting used to. Take a deep breath, because I’m about to push the idea further: Summer Martha’s Vineyard and year-round Martha’s Vineyard are different the way that the worlds of men and women are different, or the worlds of white people and black people. What’s similar about these differences is that they all have to do with privilege. If you are privileged, there are plenty of things that you don’t have to see, and plenty of things that those with less power won’t tell you. Think what kids don’t tell grownups, or what employees don’t tell bosses.

Longtime Vineyarders tend to be somewhat circumspect about what we tell summer people and recent arrivals, even the ones we like. This creates a problem. Pretty soon the summer people and recent arrivals think that what they’re seeing is all there is to it. Because they’re well-educated, well-informed, and well-connected, they assume that they are right.

They’re missing something. Something big. To paraphrase Tonto: “What you mean ‘we,’ summer person?”

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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7 Responses to First-Person Plural

  1. susan says:

    Great silent majority find. Also interesting to see one writer segueing between the two types of we.

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    • Probably related — but the royal we is pretty straightforward. We may think it’s silly or pompous, but there’s no real question who we is. (OK, the royal may be somewhat confused and believe that s/he really is plural, but that’s not our problem. ) This other we is more complicated. The speaker is assuming the right to speak for others who have not given him/her that right. I isn’t impressive enough; it has to be augmented by the appearance of numbers. If you challenge this we (“What you mean ‘we,’ white man?”), the comeback is often something like Nixon’s 1969 invocation of the “silent majority”: all those silent people aren’t complaining, so what’s your problem?

      Hah. I just looked up “silent majority” in Wikipedia. It used to mean the (literal) dead. “He’s joined the silent majority” means “he died.”

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      • Interestingly enough, the editor of Martha’s Vineyard Arts & Ideas uses the royal we as well as the faux-inclusive we. If you’ve got the mag around, read the Editor’s Note. It’s pretty easy to see when he segues from one to the other.

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  2. Sharon Stewart says:

    I love how you eased into this topic. And left me wanting to hear more …

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    • Thank you, Sharon and Susan. This started off to be the one- or two-paragraph intro to a specific instance of “we” abuse — about which I’ve been too ripped to write coherently for the last two weeks. I realized I had to lay some kind of theoretical framework, and this theoretical framework has been so integral to me being for so long that explaining it was hard. Watch this space!

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  3. susan says:

    This is your best entry so far for me. I like how you tie together the places you’ve lived, I like how accurate your ideas and wording are in both nuance and direct statement. How you find the common denominator. How you don’t use your own education, information and connections to do what these summer people do.

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