Which word do you use more often, “We” or “I”?
David Brooks’ column “How to Actually Make America Great Again” reflects on the new book by Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett called The Upswing. It chronicles America’s swing from solidarity (we) to individualism (I) over the last fifty years.
As one point of evidence, the authors cite that the use of the word “I” in American books has doubled between 1965 and 2008.
We are increasingly thinking or at least writing in terms of “I.” At the same time, our definition of “we” seems to be diminishing.
In his previous book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Putnam goes back to his home town of Port Clinton, Ohio and is astonished about how the town and times have changed. What used to be a place where people from different classes were integrated in every way – school, sports teams, civic clubs and so on, is now one segregated in every way by class. It is not a story of two Americas but two Americas within a single zip code.
In this report from PBS Newshour, Putnam is sitting with two former high school classmates and they remark that while one was rich, one was middle class and one was poor – they never had any idea of their class differences while growing up. All have gone on to lead successful lives.
In the largest sense, our idea of “we” can be inclusive of all living things. Some may narrow the definition to only include people. This winnowing of “we” can further be filtered by country, class, race, religion, political beliefs and so on. Eventually, the “we” recedes all together and we are just left with “I” – which is coincidentally the first letter in the words isolated and insulated.
The primacy of how we think of ourselves – either as an individual or part of something bigger – plays out in almost every aspect of our lives and society.
When thinking about my children, I hope they see themselves as part of many “we’s” – a family, a school, sports teams, bands, theatre groups, girls scout troops, a community, a country, a world, a planet. As they grow older, I hope this expanded sense of “we” grows with them.
And perhaps when they and others of their generation reach my current age, they can look back and see that the use of the word “we” will be the one that has doubled from the time they were young.