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Captain Pronoun: How the Third Person Takes the Fall

President Obama gave us a demonstration of how much can be accomplished by that indispensable man, the third person.

To the politician looking to shade the truth and evade responsibility, there is no greater superhero than Captain Pronoun. You wouldn’t believe how much can be obfuscated simply by shifting the number and person of a narrative’s dramatis personae.

For example, on “60 Minutes” Sunday night, President Obama gave us a demonstration of how much can be accomplished by that indispensable man, the third person. Pressed on whether he was asleep at the wheel during the rise of the Islamic State—which he obviously was—Obama replied: “Our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that, I think, they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.” Yes, that’s right. They.

Obama might be foolish enough to let a radical terrorist group re-establish itself in a power vacuum in Iraq and Syria, but he wouldn’t be so foolish as to use the first personal singular or plural—”I” or “we”—to acknowledge his own responsibility. No, he’ll use the third person singular, “he” (i.e., James Clapper), and third personal plural, “they” (the intelligence community). That third person is an awfully useful fellow, always there to take the fall when mistakes were made.

(It should be noted that the actual third people in this case called BS, pointing to all the warnings Obama ignored.)

In other settings, it is more useful to switch from the second or third person back to the first. If I describe something that I think the government should do to you, you might become worried, offended, even outraged. So it’s much better to describe it as something I want done to me, which has the additional advantage of making me seem like quite a magnanimous fellow, willing to make the necessary sacrifices for the public good. That’s why President Obama likes to talk about raising taxes for “people like me” when he presents his latest proposal for raising taxes on you.

It’s also why Ezekiel Emanuel writes an article on “Why I hope to Die at 75.” The first person pronoun is not justified. None of the considerations he talks about—for example, the possibility of being slowed down and disabled in old age—are in any way specific to his own situation. He is not projecting the state of his own mind and body 18 years in the future, because he has no idea what that will be. He’s talking about the human condition in general, and his observations apply to everyone. So he’s really saying that he hopes you die at 75. Which is a little disconcerting when you realize this is the man who just redesigned our health care system.

Principles are universal, so they ought to make just as much sense if you substitute out one pronoun for another. What’s good for me should be good for you and for them, and vice versa. But note how rarely political arguments translate well—how much worse “I hope to die at 75” sounds when it’s not just about Zeke Emanuel any more.

All of this can be very clarifying, if clarity is what you’re striving for.

But for the politician, the goal is usually to deny and deflect, to switch out the specific for the vaguely general, or to make a universal pronouncement seem safely narrow and specific.

And if that’s what you’re going for—well, it looks like a job for Captain Pronoun.

Follow Robert on Twitter.

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