Viewpoint: The Problem with the “We Are All…” Trope

Does our chorus of empathy miss the mark?

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Pakistanis hold candles during a protest to condemn the attack on of 14-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai, who was shot by the Taliban for speaking out in support of education for women, in Karachi, Pakistan, Oct. 11, 2012.

Here’s how you can figure out if you’re Egyptian: Do you live in Egypt or carry an Egyptian passport? No? Then you’re probably from somewhere else. Here’s how you can figure out if you’re Salman Rushdie: When you look in the mirror, does Rushdie look back at you? No? Then you’re probably someone else. And unless you’re a 14-year old Pakistani girl who was brutally attacked by the Taliban for speaking out for universal education, then you’re probably not Malala Yousafzai either.

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That, however, is not how the larger world sees it. Not only are you Malala, so am I — and so is everybody else you know. UNESCO says so; Foreign Policy magazine says so; Angelina Jolie says so. We’re all Egyptians too, it turns out — a claim most famously staked by American-born Nicholas Kristof, in the 2011 column he wrote for The New York Times about the country’s pro-democracy demonstrations. And if you happened to be in New York in 1989, when Rushdie went into hiding, you might have heard the assembled writers of the PEN Society declaring, “I am Rushdie! We are all Rushdie!” That was true as far as it went, except that the writers were free to repair to a bar after their declarations of solidarity, while Rushdie dared not poke his nose outside for nine years.

We are all, it now seems, a great many things. We were all Hokies, back in 2007 after the Virginia Tech shootings. We were all Danes in 2006 when a newspaper in Denmark published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, sparking threats and demonstrations in the Muslim world.  This increasingly common trope has an easy, fill-in-the-blank quality to it that allows us to affect a bit of purloined heroism, put it on the credit card of someone else, and feel pretty darned good about ourselves in the bargain. But if the device has been fast to boil, particularly in the instant-meme Internet age, it took a long time to percolate — on the order of 200 years.

“The earliest example I’ve seen for the trope is Thomas Jefferson’s ‘We are all republicans, we are all federalists,’ in his first inaugural address,” says Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Boston Globe and executive producer of the site Jefferson’s coinage didn’t return in the language records until Sir William Harcourt, a British Liberal leader, declared in 1888, “We are all socialists now.” That, in turn, prompted a generations-later rejoinder from economist Milton Friedman, who in 1965 answered, “We are all Keynesians now.”

But it took John Kennedy to grab the We are all device, flip it to the first person singular, translate it into German and mainline it straight into the linguistic bloodstream, with his celebrated “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963, delivered at the then-new Berlin wall. “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin,” Kennedy declared. “And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’” As Zimmer notes, “The recent declarations of transnational empathy — we are all New Yorkers or Americans or Danes now — seem much more evocative of Kennedy.”

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It’s a measure of the pandemically infectious nature of language tropes that you can’t even discuss one without invoking others. Among linguists, Zimmer says, We are all is considered a subcategory of what’s known as a “snowclone,” a language template that gets riffed-on and repurposed over and over again. But the ubiquity of the current iteration does not mean we should grow numb to its presumption. Surely, there are humbler ways to make common cause with someone else’s pain — to empathize without appropriating. We can indeed help the likes of Malala and the Egyptian protestors — provided we remember our place.