Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Speak for Yourself

Has anyone else noticed an escalation in the use of "the second person" in common speech? It's starting to get ridiculous.

Usually, I hear it in interviews and I find it really annoying when people tell me what I would do in a given situation. For example, imagine an interview with a person who has escaped the attack of a mad gunman. Instead of :
"When it happened, I couldn't fight back. I was way too scared -- I hid."
...we often get:
"When the time comes, you just react by hiding. You don't think to fight back. All you can think about is getting away."
I don't? How the hell do you know? What a pathetic attempt head-off accusations this is. It's not that the speaker was too frightened to fight back; it is just he experienced what every human would under the same circumstances.

I understand "fight or flight" and the workings of the reptilian brain, but people do sometimes act heroically in these situations. And, by the way, it is perfectly okay if you were too scared to face down an armed maniac. Admit it, without shame, but do not insinuate what I would have done in your place. Neither one of us knows until the situation occurs.

One of the people involved in the Stanley Milgram experiments (the ones where common people administered what they believed to be fatal electrical shocks to people they didn't even know) said: "You turn off your moral compass..."

I'll tell you what, pal. I don't shut off my moral compass for anyone.

How dare anyone insinuate that I would deliberately and knowingly hurt another human being just because that insinuater fell victim to staged social pressures? -- just because a bunch of people did the same thing? -- just because thousands participated in various genocides? I'm me. Maybe I would fail in the face of such pressure (I doubt it) but no one has the right to imply I'm not better than that, especially in an attempt to justify his own acts of inhumanity, cowardice or immorality.

I understand that one basis for successful psychology is the idea that people follow various patterns of behavior. Milgram's experiment is a testament to that. Let's, by all means, continue to study common human behaviors, but let's not speak as if following the patterns of everyone else in the world is inevitable. In the course of human history, many have proven their ability to resists groupthink, fear of retribution aside. This guy, in Nazi Germany, for instance:

Is there anything more potentially socially damaging than hearing a teen mother saying, "You think you are ready -- that you learned the lessons about not getting pregnant, but when the time comes, in the heat of the moment, you forget all of that..."

No I don't. You did, but I don't. Lots of people have said, despite their passions, "No -- this is too dangerous. We need to stop. I could get pregnant." If we keep talking as if there is no hope of controlling our natural instincts -- as if it is inevitable that our intellect lose out to our passions -- we might as well quit trying to evolve into higher beings. What are we, salmon?

It's bad enough that we generalize people's actions, but when evasion of responsibility and homogenization of reaction and of moral failings becomes a pattern of common speech, we have serious problems.

"But, Chris -- you're not thinking about pronouns when you speak. You just say what comes into your head and you imitate patterns of speech you have heard ..."

Really? Is that what I do?

We just keep crawling deeper into the comfortable buzzing of the hive: millions of voices become one comforting, buzzing drone...


  1. On the other paw, it's also true that 'you' don't know how you'll respond to a given situation until you're in it. It's entirely possible that the guy in the Milgram experiment never thought he'd turn off his moral compass for anyone, either.

    I think it's interesting that the "you" proliferation seems to be most common when people are talking about behaviour they may not be proud of -- choosing to flee instead of fight, for example -- and less common when the behaviour is admirable.

  2. You are right, of course. I did make a concession (albeit weak one) for that: "Maybe I would fail in the face of such pressure (I doubt it)..." Still, I think we need at least to have more faith in ourselves than to -- untested --accept the idea that it is natural to, for instance, shut off one's moral compass. Then, of course, it woud be nice to accept our failures with, as Mel Brooks's Dr. Frankenstein once said, "quiet dignity and grace." I agree with you completely: it is certainly a conveniently chameloen-like verbal construct.

  3. Never seen that photo before -- very cool. It makes you think. ;)

    1. When I'm not on a phone, I should post a link to the story behind that picture. There is a story behind that guy...