There Is No They

This is one of my personal pet peeves. No matter the setting or topic of conversation, there is usually at least one person in every group (or a lot of them) who refers to a “they” when speaking. They are always the ones at fault, some nefarious nemesis who is ruining the otherwise normal operation of the world either by sophisticated plots or utter incompetence. Often, the person referencing they will ascribe both qualities – which should be mutually exclusive – to their enemy in the same breath.

“What they are trying to do is put us out of a job by changing the system on us all the time because they don’t know what they’re doing.”

After hearing this comment in a real life situation, when no particular “they” had been identified preceding the comment, the only thing I could think is that this person DEFINITELY clicks on every one of those article headlines that read something like, “Weight Loss Secrets THEY Don’t Want You To Know About!” The speaker automatically assumed that someone else’s actions had her in mind and that they were both plotting against her AND causing her problems by being bad at their jobs. I’m not saying that any of this is or isn’t the case, I’m saying that no deeper thought went into the situation at all. No consideration of the actual reasons that changes might be made, who actually makes them, and how they might be made. She just wanted to rally the troops around her frustration for no apparently productive reason. The danger of this kind of thinking and language is that it stops critical thought before it ever happens and it desensitizes us to othering. They cannot be both incompetent buffoons and conspiratorial masterminds at the same time. If our default setting is to be out walking around in the world with a built-in adversary who is always lurking in our language (without realizing it), we’re primed to slot whatever foil the outrage bait tweets suggest into the role of they.

Immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, “Inner-Cities”, LGBTQ people, sanctuary cities, liberals, conservatives, government, scientists and science in general, intellectuals, anyone who benefits from social safety net programs or thinks that the programs are absolutely the moral obligation of a wealthy and unequal society and are also beneficial to everyone… does this seem familiar?

Having a phantom foe using up RAM in our minds is not conducive to thoughtful dialogue or a sustainable culture. It is only programming. Let’s disrupt our thinking by stopping ourselves every time the word they comes out of our mouths and make sure that we’re speaking specifically.

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