Monday, news broke that a Chicago resident and self-described Satanist failed in his argument before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to convince the justices that the motto “In God We Trust,” official on U.S. paper currency just since 1957, forces atheists to involuntarily spread a religious message every time they spend money. In light of that verdict, I have some original thoughts on the problem of how to argue against the inclusion of that motto on everything from cash to government stationary to police cars and even, recently, in public schools. As you might have expected for me, my argument will hinge on a linguistic consideration: specifically, the first-person plural subject “we.”
Unlike English, which has only a single word for the first-person plural pronoun we, many languages have developed distinct pronouns for a we that includes both the speaker and any addressee(s) and another we that excludes addressee(s) and admits only the speaker and his or her associates. Out of a data sample of 200 languages in the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (WALS), 68 make this inclusive/exclusive distinction with at least two distinct words for the different senses of we. In the 120 languages in the sample which, like English, make no such formal inclusive/exclusive distinction with unique words, the distinction in meaning is still very much available. Speakers and hearers just have to sort out which sense is the intended one whenever they use or hear the word we in context. Let me give you an example.
On the evening of on July 7, 2016, a twenty-five year-old military veteran named Micah Johnson shot 12 police officers and two civilians at a peaceful march in downtown Dallas, TX, that had been organized to protest the recent police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both black men, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Falcon Heights, Minnesota, respectively. Johnson’s sniper-style attack killed five of the officers he targeted. In response to the attack, conservative radio host Joe Walsh tweeted an incendiary message that sounded like—and was criticized for being—a threat of violence against Black Lives Matter protesters and President Obama. Joe Walsh’s provocative tweet read:
“3 Dallas Cops killed, 7 wounded. This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.”
In the wake of outrage expressed over the tweet, Walsh deleted the original post and sent out a new message, ending with the line: “Time for us to defend our cops.” An article in Salon.com critical of Walsh’s original tweet and his response to the controversy it had generated noted:
“The semiotics of Walsh’s missives is not complicated. The ‘us’ and the ‘our’ are thinly veiled references to white, right-wing Christians.”
That is, the first-person plural pronouns in the tweet are clearly marked by the sociopolitical context of the speech as exclusive of a large swath of potential American readers of the message. It is simultaneously clear that Walsh intended the phrase “Real America” to likewise exclude both President Obama and the Black Lives Matter protesters whom he dubs “punks”: both are encapsulated in the second-person plural pronoun you that the “Real America” is coming after.
The reason the word we functions in the way it does in English and other languages is because the semantics of the first-person plural are not necessarily plural at all, but primarily associative. We doesn’t often refer to a generalized group of speakers (i.e. “We who are speaking in unison”), but rather to a single speaker and his or her associates, a category which may or may not include or exclude one or more addressees, yielding the inclusive/exclusive distinction found in so many world languages.
The other funny thing to know about the semantics of first-person personal pronouns like I and we is that they induce a de se reading or understanding in the person speaking or reading them. That is, when you say or read a sentence containing we or I, you are immediately encouraged by those pronouns to ascribe the content of the predicate of the sentences containing them to yourself. The hit 2014 children’s book by B. J. Novak The Book with No Pictures played with the semantics of self-ascription of the word I by including a page that read:
“I am a monkey who taught myself to read.
Hey! I’m not a monkey!”
The interjection and second sentence are supposed to mimic the adult reader’s objection upon being forced by a performance of the book to children to say aloud the de se content of the first statement on the page. Numerous slogans and ad campaigns, such as the Ad Council and Austin-based GSD&M’s I am an American series following the tragic and divisive events of September 11, 2001, and the Je suis Charlie viral phenomenon in the wake of the 2015 shootings at the Paris offices of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, similarly trade on the semantics of self-ascription of first-person pronouns as a means of signaling solidarity with others. In 2016, the Ad Council was back at it again with their We are America campaign.
The result of all of this is that, whenever I see the recent official motto “In God We Trust” and, as an adult English speaker, unconsciously and without explicit control read and understand it, I am faced with three interpretations:
- The We subject is truly plural, in which case I am included among the speakers and am forced to interpret the declaration as a de se statement, obligating me to include myself in the set of those who place trust in a divine figure that I in fact deny exists.
- The We is associative and inclusive, in which case I am included by the speaker (presumably the government, since the motto appears on government property and currency) in the group of those who place trust in God and, again, am compelled to self-ascribe the predicate.
- The We is associative and exclusive, in which case I am excluded by the government speaker from the group that includes the government of my nation plus associates and apparently places trust in God.
The first and second of these interpretations require me to ascribe to a lie and would seem to therefore violate the “right of freedom of thought protected by the First Amendment” that the Supreme Court affirmed in ruling against government compulsion of speech on citizens in the 1977 case of Wooley v. Maynard. These interpretations would also seem to fun afoul of the famous principle from the 1943 case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, in which the court ruled:
“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
The third interpretation, meanwhile, would seem to be what the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had in mind in ruling that “[t]he inclusion of the motto on currency is similar to other ways in which secular symbols give a nod to the nation’s religious heritage.” It also, though, would apparently force me to accept that, in a government said by Abraham Lincoln to be “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” I am neither a proper member of that government nor, therefore, of the people that comprise it, thus effectively excluding me from my share of citizenship in this nation. And yet I have all the required documentation to prove my citizenship, so this too is a lie.
No matter how you slice it, by insisting on placing the post-1956 motto on currency, in state property, and on other official communication, the government is forcing me to read and silently assent to a lie, something which, to quote from the affidavit filed by George Maynard for his District Court case that would ultimately be settled in Wooley v. Maynard (1977), “I find morally, ethically, religiously and politically abhorrent.” I would therefore move that the motto be either stricken from all official contexts in which its champions insist it appear or re-written with a different subject (e.g. “some of us”) or a new temporal modifier like “used to” that makes explicit that the saying has only limited applicability to select groups at select times in our shared history.