The Schismatic ‘We’

March 18, 2011

Consider the following two sentences:

“First, the tax that is avoided through loopholes in tax law, could be collected. This, quite extraordinarily, is the easiest solution to the problem we face.”

“The corporation tax burden is borne by workers and owners. We should tax those owners in a consistent way and not in an arbitrary way.”

The first is from a report called ‘The Great Tax Parachute’ by the Green New Deal Group of prominent lefties, while the second is from a report called ‘UK Uncut Unravelled’ by notorious rightey Tim Worstall. What I want to highlight in this post is the way in which both sentences apparently use ‘we’ in exactly the same way while coming to very different conclusions.

To begin the discussion, let me tell you a little story. Once upon a time I went for a job with a prominent charity, which shall remain nameless. I was asked the question – the quite notorious interview question – ‘What does teamwork mean to you?’ I responded, ‘Teamwork to me means ensuring that everyone’s role on the team is well understood, and ensuring that everyone has a part to play in achieving our shared objectives.’

I didn’t get the job. I called up for feedback, and was told, ‘We felt that you weren’t a team player. You should’ve put greater emphasis on helping out your colleagues when they needed support.’

I was somewhat flabbergasted. For me, working as a team meant working with people towards a shared goal, rather than providing mutual support. I assumed that my colleagues would be competent enough at what they did to not require any support from myself. Later, as I moved between organisations and started working in teams that did in fact consist of highly competent people, I understood that teamwork required mutual support – but not because of someone elses’ weakness, but because in practical terms some priorities will require more hands than others at different times, and everyone on a team has to be ready to pitch in.

This sort of distinction – between unconditional support and support founded upon a recognition of the competence of others – is what I’d like to highlight. In both of the sentences above, the word ‘we’ is used to refer to society, and the recommendations made are made in the understanding that they will be taken as recommendations for how we move society forward. They both implicitly assume that the reader is engaged with society; that they do not stand outside it, looking in at an internal struggle. They assume that society refers to the social and legal structures that comprise the United Kingdom. Even with this apparently identical use of ‘we’, they come to opposing conclusions.

Why should this be the case? Surely, given that both sides possess the same understanding of society, they should move towards the same conclusions? After all, UK Uncut is not claiming that the likes of Vodafone are outwith society; quite the opposite, that they are within society and are not paying their dues to it. What’s implied with this division of ‘we’ is a division in their conceptions of the individuals who comprise that society.

The following sentence:

“We’re all in this together.”

has come into common use, especially in relation to the cuts. The differing ways in which it is used are telling, because it’s impossible for the ‘we’ in that sentence to be ambivalent in the  same way as those in the sentences above. Its rejection by some points to it referring to a conception of individuals within society which is unacceptable. What is that conception?

It seems clear that, to those who reject the sentence, individuals within a society are not simply autonomous; rather they have a duty to support others within that society as a condition of membership. It is that failure to provide support that leads to the moral rejection of the actions of Vodafone; their actions have sent them on a path to their ejection from society, and it is in this sense that the UKUncut protests are understood by their activists. They are protesting a social transgression, rather than an illegality. However, social transgressions and illegality are easily conflated, which is why the protests have used language indicative of illegality when referring to Vodafone. In doing so, they have run into conflict with people who hold a quite different conception of individuals within a society.

As discussed above, I have always conceived my colleagues as autonomous individuals responsible for their own wellbeing and for their own area of work. I recognise competence rather than fulfilment of duty. In this sense, I am a member of a society composed of individuals whose responsibility is to their work, rather than to each other. To me, ‘We’re all in this together’ means that all our work will be impacted – bankers will be fined, less efficient staff will be fired, and less important projects will be cut. In this sense, an individual transgresses against society if they fail to work while being able to do so and so require others to provide for them; this is the area in which duty is applied. Other matters are handled via the legal system; via the series of social conventions around democracy and debate that go towards determining the formal rules of society.

It is therefore clear that under the latter sense of ‘we’, tax avoidance is largely irrelevant in terms of duty; there is no shirking of work involved. However, under the former there is a question of duty – duty to contribute to society beyond productive work. This distinction in the uses of ‘we’ is why, when engaging with opponents, it is vital to ensure what they’re actually saying rather than what you think they’re saying. Much as I enjoy Tim Worstall’s blog, his report for the IEA is going to make no difference to those who don’t use ‘we’ like he does. Similarly, the man to which Tim is Nemesis, Richard Murphy, might as well not bother responding to Tim unless he’s going to shift his ‘we’ onto his turf. Until both sides are talking the same language, debate cannot take place.


2 Responses to “The Schismatic ‘We’”

  1. A.H. Gillett said

    A post that’s bang-on and very much aligned with the name of the blog. I’ve noticed this before, ‘we’ joining the club of ‘progressive’ and ‘fair’. There are truly dozens of languages being bandied about in a very narrow area at the moment.

    Also, the people who didn’t give you the job sound like arses.

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