“we” is a difficult word

Today, I’m reading a book. (Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us About Development and Evolution, by Mark S. Blumberg, recommended by my dear friend Erin, and one of rather a lot I suddenly have out from the library…)

I could go in a lot of directions with my thoughts so far (I just finished chapter 3, of 5), but instead I’m going to blockquote this:

When applied to odd-looking human beings, these words also say a lot about our desire to draw a sharp line between them and us. They are freaks. We, however, are just ordinary folks who popped out of the womb perfectly formed, all fingers and toes and everything else accounted for and in the right place, shocking no one because, after all, that’s how our bodies are supposed to look.

Except, see, I didn’t. I don’t know why finger and toe counts are always the shorthand people pull out for “perfectly formed”, but I didn’t pop out of the womb with the conventional number. And it is — more and more as I read this book — profoundly disconcerting to have the author constantly use “we” in a way that puts himself and the reader on one side, and all of those freaks with the wrong number of toes (or heads, or penises, or what-have-you) on the other. He makes it explicit, repeatedly, that he thinks freaks are marvels of developmental biology who have a lot to teach everyone about the marvel of biology that everyone is (and everyone, truly, is), but he also just keeps calling me a freak.

(From p. 140: “…these anomalies are transformed before our eyes. We no longer stare at them with horror. Our shock is replaced by awe. And, perhaps more important, by a sense of kinship.” See, I get how his explicit feelings here include awe. But I also see how his implicit perspective is that people, me included, are expected to view me with shock or horror. And that I — as a reader thus somehow included in that “we” — apparently should not feel any baseline kinship with myself. Seriously? My to-me-perfectly-normal, offbeat, quirky, hard-to-fit-for-shoes foot makes me an object of repugnance? Of self-alienation?)

The title of this blog is “Across Divided Networks” because I care about prompting conversations that span groups, that bridge, and expose, disparate assumptions. Usually, the networks I find myself bridging are those of LIS (my professional training) and CS (much of my social network). But I read and hear a lot of conversations these days about library advocacy, which includes a notion of bridging library and stakeholder networks. And, really, just being alive in the world, being a human who cares about more than hiding under a rock (or inside a carefully homogenous social milieu), necessitates bridging networks.

Which means I am often terribly sensitive to how the word “we” is used. Does the implicit group it describes truly exist? Is someone being marginalized and silenced because they don’t belong to the group, but fear to speak out against it now that it’s been named, and they’ve been presumed to be inside it? Does it blind the speaker of the “we” to the ways the assumed commonality may not exist? Does it — as here — accompany an explicit statement of solidarity, while communicating some sort of quiet condescension?

My foot doesn’t fit in established boxes. It blends in at a glance, but not on further inspection. It doesn’t have quite the same construction as, in all likelihood, any other foot on earth. It’s awkward, strange, and wholly functional, and mostly beautiful. I identify with my foot. I am finding it increasingly difficult to give Blumberg’s argument a fair hearing.

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