A book review I just encountered from six decades ago uses the phrase “I think” not once, but twice. Such a concession to subjectivity isn’t only rare today, but even frowned on. It shouldn’t be. “I think” might make the world a kinder, gentler place.
True, too many “I” sentences can turn formal writing into a quagmire of selfiness. “After it rained, I determined the flowers were all soaked” is a cumbersome, needlessly self-referential way of saying, “The rain soaked the flowers.”
It’s also said that the first-person pronoun is unnecessary because readers know that what writers write is their opinion. Experience says otherwise. I recall an elderly man, highly successful in business but little educated in the humanities, telling me that two politicians, one he hated and the other an imprisoned felon, were friends and allies. I asked where he’d heard this claim, which I seriously doubted, and he pointed me to a polemical article he’d just read. Lacking the integrity to write “I think,” the article’s author misled my friend and other readers by phrasing his assertion as fact.
Indeed, in the absence of the first person pronoun, sentences can sound like pronouncements from God. Take a standard judges’ line. Rather than “I find…,” they say, “The Court finds…” The mantle of authority is thus asserted; any possibility of error excluded. Even “Court” is capitalized, like a monotheistic “God.”
Some judges do use “I,” showing a willingness to come down from the judicial firmament that I find refreshing. Judges need to be unambiguous in their rulings, but language that pretends away all subjectivity risks creating a delusion that they never make mistakes.
It isn’t just the judiciary. We tend to express views in all phases of public life as if they were incontestable. When we feel strongly about something, there’s always a good reason. But does that always make us right?
That said, a strong opinion points to the possibility, even likelihood, that compelling grievances are behind it. I don’t mean lies. By definition, to lie is to make a statement the speaker knows is false. However, many supporters will accept a lie as truth, no matter how farfetched. They aren’t necessarily lying themselves, but buying into the lie because it somehow taps into the source of their frustration.
For democratically-minded people, the task is to try to understand why these followers are susceptible to the lie. What if we used the first-person pronoun when articulating our own views? It would signal, even as I’m explaining myself, I’m listening, and I’m willing to examine the flaws in my beliefs.
At any rate, I think so.
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