“We” and “they”

On Saturday I went to a talk on empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, I always think Sacha too.  It’s a problem.)

I wasn’t 100% taken in my his reasoning of cruelty being due to diminished empathy, but I’m pretty confident that his book will be more plausible.  It’s difficult to explain a nuanced scientific argument in a 40-minute talk to laypeople.

One thing that struck and surprised me though, was his use of “they” and “we” in the talk.  He talked compellingly about autism and how a lack of cognitive empathy (understanding how someone feels) does not imply a lack of affective empathy (acting appropriately on that person’s emotions), but throughout he referred to autistic people as “they”.  “We” act like this but “those autistic people” act in this other way.

Surely it’s not a stretch to think that there must have been a fair number of non-neurotypical people in the audience.  Wouldn’t “those of us who are autistic” and “those of us who are not autistic” have been a better way of putting it?

I’m always a little sensitive to in-group and out-group talk.  I wasn’t wildly happy about Robin Ince painting religious people as the out-group either, even though I’m currently sidling back into his atheist camp.

At these large events, surely it’s obvious that you’ll have a range of views.  But in smaller contexts it can be even more important, or you get a one-person out-group.  I’ve certainly been that person.  “Let’s send this sexist joke to the engineers group, it’s almost all men”.

I am absolutely sure I’ve made the mistake myself of using a vaguely-defined or non-inclusive “we”.  I’m going to try to work on that. I think we (those who write and speak in public) all should.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “We” and “they”

  1. gideonfrog says:

    I think this is a really interesting observation, because I’ve noticed that there are times when I am bothered by things like that and times when I’m not. I think it has much more to do with other factors in the speech than the actual pronouns. I mean, if he’s not autistic, it doesn’t make sense for him to say “we” when referring to people on the spectrum. And while I definitely think using the phrase even once at least makes the point, I think when you’re a scientist, the world is probably divided into “experimental condition participants” and “controls.”

    I think I look at autism questions through a slightly skewed lens, though, since my experiences with the community were with small children who were not in the borderline part of the spectrum–not Asperger’s, but autism–mostly nonverbal, very atypical kids. Using inclusive language wouldn’t even have occurred to us, in the same way that a principal giving a lecture to the whole school would not say “those of us who are teachers” and “those of us who are students,” but rather, “we” and “you.”

    I don’t know, maybe I come down on the wrong side of this one. I’m surely rambling. But this post made me think a lot about this question, and about other, similar conversations I’ve had.

  2. Gideonfrog, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I was trying to figure out for myself just what it was that made me feel a bit squicky and it really helps to be challenged to define my thoughts. And clearly on autism you’re coming from a place of much greater knowledge than I have.

    Firstly, I agree that in your situation ‘we’ and ‘you’ is totally appropriate.

    And in an academic talk about a given study population, the ‘we’ (the scientists conducting the experiments) versus ‘they’ (the group of specific individuals being studied) is totally clear. Plus maybe the ‘you’ the audience.

    I think it’s very tough to get the lines right though when you are talking about something that you’re trying to generalise across the whole population. This talk was very much about comparing the population in general to psychopaths, people with borderline personality disorder, and narcissists, and then fairly fleetingly to people with autism. While it’s maybe safe to assume psychopaths in the audience and say “we all are like this while those psychopaths are like that” (actually I’m not entirely sure – wasn’t there that psychologist who got tested and found he was a psychopath?), I thought it was not so appropriate to say “we all are like this while those people with autism are like that”. But maybe I was misreading his use of “we” at times. In general I think Simon Baron-Cohen writes extremely thoughtfully and it’s certainly not meant of a criticism of him, most as an exploration of my own reaction.

    I did go to a talk at the science festival about social mobility which dealt with this issue by surveying the audience at the start about their perceived makeup in terms of social class and then talking about us as a specific group, but that of course wouldn’t have been appropriate in this case.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s