The most dangerous pronoun is “they”—and its objective case “them.” Unless its antecedent is a string of specific nouns, “they” is most likely to perpetrate misconceptions and downright lies. Pronouns are convenient, but please don’t put me in a box with “them.”
The safest pronouns are, of course, “I” and “me.” This is because I know myself well. “You” is probably the next safest pronoun. I would hesitate to say anything about you to you that wasn’t justified and, I hope, sensitive. “He” and “she” refer to just one person and thus may have more validity than “them,” although I’ve heard slanderous things about “him” and “her” that were nothing more than gossipy fictions. Finally, there’s “we” and “us.” Do I really know enough about people like me to use “we” accurately? How could I complete the sentence “We Wellesley graduates…”? Earned high-power positions? Had children? Took up knitting?
This topic came to mind as I was reading comments on the PBS NewsHours’ segment about disparity by race in education, which I discussed in my blog. One comment read, “The black community needs to grow up and start taking responsibility for themselves, and the democrats need to stop treating them as children.”
It’s obviously racist, but taking responsibility for oneself is an accepted standard of adulthood. What would happen to the comment if, instead of “the black community,” the writer had used a string of nouns describing the people who are not taking responsibility for themselves? If I think about why someone might not take responsibility for himself, I get an almost endless list of possibilities: mental or physical illness, lack of opportunity to work, wages too low to pay for food and housing, alcohol or drug addiction, a felony conviction or lack of training that impacts the ability to get work, depression, bad decisions that prevent getting ahead like gambling or having an extra child—and, yes, a willingness to rely on others, be it the government or one’s parents.
Accurately written the sentence would read, “Able-bodied, healthy people who have the carfare to get to vocational school for training or to the job itself and who do not have to stay home with a baby need to grow up and start taking responsibility for themselves….” Wouldn’t adding “black” to that sentence sound funny? Only “black able-bodied, healthy people…have to take responsibility”?
And who are the “black community”? Is there a corresponding “white community”? Do people who are not responsible for themselves think of themselves as a community or act as a community? Interestingly, a number of black leaders see a growing need for community and look back longingly to the days when churches were strong, when neighbors disciplined each other’s children, and even when schools were segregated That black community was a positive force.
“They” is a dangerous pronoun, and using it reflects arrogance. How much can one person know about others?