Tuesday, 24 May 2016 09:33

Watch Out for Personal Pronouns!

When we hear or read someone referring to groups, communities, or cultures by plural personal pronouns ("they" and "we") and says offensive remarks, we should be cautious. As Anna Szilagyi argues, plural personal pronouns can be deceptive. 

Our Linguistic Self-Defence Guide Against Antisemitism teaches people how to spot and resist manipulation when they come across antisemitic speech. We use real-life examples, detected by Get the Trolls Out monitors, and reveal the subtle rhetorical tricks that are typically employed to brainwash the public into hating and discriminating against Jewish people.


By Anna Szilagyi 

To avoid repeating names all the time, we often refer to people by a special group of words, called personal pronouns in linguistics. Some of them — like “I”, “you”, “she”, or “him” — refer to a person. Other pronouns — like “we”, “us”, “they”, or “them” — are used in place of people. Since there is nothing unusual about using personal pronouns, normally we do not pay attention to the whole thing at all. Yet, this also means that we may overlook cases when personal pronouns are used in tricky ways. 

On a BBC Radio London programme, for example, a phone-in caller “Andy from St Margaret” began his comment by stating: “They are trying to control us more, and more, and more.” Andy used two personal pronouns: “they” and “us”. Both are plural, they refer to groups of people. Though Andy was reluctant to admit this, he used “they” in place of Jewish people, while “us” stood for Britons in his statement. 

When we hear or read that someone refers to groups, communities, or cultures by plural personal pronouns and uses offensive remarks about them, we should be cautious. As this case shows, plural personal pronouns can be deceptive:  

1) By using the pronouns “they” and “us” Andy indicated that Jews and Britons are completely different people. In this way, he subtly excluded British Jews from the national community of Britons. 

2) By separating “they” (“the Jews”) from “us” (“the Britons”), Andy could arbitrarily attribute different traits and behaviour to the two groups. In this particular case, the plural personal pronouns formed the background to describe Jews as aggressive and power-hungry people who victimize Britons. Such negative clichés of Jews could evoke or fuel in the audience an irrational fear of Jewish people. 

3) If we refer to a group of people by the plural personal pronouns “they” or “them”, we can create the impression that everyone who belongs to that group is the same. Accordingly, in case we claim that “they” are responsible for some bad deeds and/or characterised by very unlikable traits, we will, intentionally or unintentionally, indicate that this applies to the whole group. For example, Andy implied that all Jews are aggressive and power-hungry. Get the Trolls Out monitors have also detected a Greek blog post in which the author attacked Jewish people in a similar fashion: “They destroyed the universe.” Even if such statements have nothing common with reality, they can covertly influence our thinking, for instance, through plural personal pronouns. 

4) By using the plural personal pronoun “they” — instead of speaking directly about Jewish people, Andy created ambiguity. This made antisemitism in his statement less salient, protecting the speaker and misleading the listener at the same time.  

5) Ambiguity could also trigger an irrational fear of Jews in the listeners through covertly strengthening the existing negative clichés of Jewish influence and revengefulness. By using a personal pronoun (“they”) instead of a noun (“Jews”), the speaker implied that the people in-question (“the Jews”) are so powerful and dangerous that it was better for him not even mentioning their name. 

Groups, national communities, cultures are characterized by inner diversity. Those who spread hate and discrimination want you to believe the opposite. Don’t let them trick you.

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