‘We’ is an Evil Word
A Professor of mine used this abominable word again and again in a lecture on punishment and justice this week. To relieve the neurological inflammation this caused, I submitted the essay below as my assignment for the week.
In his magnum opus Man, Economy, and State economist Murray Rothbard writes:
“The term ‘society,’ then, denotes a pattern of interpersonal exchanges among human beings. It is obviously absurd to treat ‘society’ as ‘real,’ with some independent force of its own. There is no reality to society apart from the individuals who compose it and whose actions determine the type of social pattern that will be established.” (emphasis added, p. 84).
Only individuals act. When someone states that an entity other than the individual acts, e.g. in the phrase “we punish,” it should be obvious that the term ‘we’ is evidence of the use of colloquial, instead of literal, language. Collectives do not, cannot act. “There is no reality to society apart from the individuals who compose it.”
“We punish” is a colloquial substitute for the literal statement “an individual, acting in his or her capacity as an agent of the state, authorizes the use of violent force against another individual.” Those individuals who carry out the actual punishment (the arrest, the processing, the locking of the jail cell door, the delivery of food during the term of incarceration, etc.) are likewise each acting in their respective capacities as agents of a government.
This seems trivial. It is not. We, insofar as the term includes particular individuals, like readers of a blog post, do not punish criminals by each carrying out specific actions in our capacity as agents of a government. Therefore, though it was repeated throughout this week’s lecture, it is vital to understand that we do not punish.
We, in the literal sense, do not impose theories of justice on others. We do not authorize the expenditure of thousands of dollars to incarcerate individuals. We do not decide which activities invite violent punishment of the actors. We did not authorize the Drug War (remember, it’s a war on people, not a “War on Drugs”). In every case, particular individuals, acting in their respective capacities as agents of a particular institution(in this case, the United States Federal Government or the one of the fifty states), each chooses to act in particular ways, each time against some other individual.
Unfortunate, generally accepted, politically correct idioms hide this fundamental distinction. “We the people” and “we’re in this together” are common examples. There is no singular noun ‘the people.’ It is a collective noun. It indicates that there exists a number of individuals, and that these individuals share a particular trait, namely humanity. That’s it. There is no external, singular entity ‘the people,’ nor is there ‘the society,’ ‘the nation,’ ‘the country,’ and so on. Nor do “‘we’ take the chance” that an individual will commit certain illegal acts over and over again.
What are the dangers of substituting the idiomatic ‘we’ for an ontologically and literally correct phrase that identifies the particular perpetrators of certain actions? Culpability–that is, guilt and responsibility–evaporates. No longer is a particular person responsible for his or her actions. The criminal isn’t responsible for committing a crime, society is. Does this sound familiar? Part of the leftist political climate in this country is the direct consequence of the substitution of ‘we’ and ‘society’ for more accurate language.
Sloppy substitution of ‘society,’ a derivative of ‘we,’ for particular individuals permits effective forgiveness of the actual perpetrators of crime, and supplants the nonexistent entity ‘society’ as the guilty party. The consequence here is obvious: one cannot punish something that does not actually exist. Nor can a victim acquire restitution from something that doesn’t exist. In fact, it is impossible to even confront, much less seek redress from, something that does not exist. With this in mind, anyone who sympathizes with victims of crimes should reject the inarticulate conceptualization of singular entities that bear no form in reality, and the subsequent employment of those concepts in analyzing reality.
At best, ‘we’ is an improper term.
At worst, ‘we’ is an evil word. It protects criminals with a powerful shield called ‘society.’ It shifts away guilt when it ought to be left squarely with actual, particular criminals. It strips victims of their fundamental ability to seek redress. And it sabotages otherwise intelligent discourse about the nature of law and legislation.